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Father of modern tunnelling Sir Alan Muir Wood dies at 87

Tunnelling pioneer Sir Alan Muir Wood died this week, aged 87.

Muir Wood worked on many of the 20th century’s great tunnelling projects, including the Channel Tunnel and the Jubilee Line Extension.

He was also an ICE past president and the International Tunnelling Association’s founding president.

Born on 8 August 1921, he studied Mechanical Science at Cambridge University. He joined the Royal Navy as an engineering officer, serving between 1942 and 1946.

After the Second World War he joined Southern Railways to design bridges and permanent way before working at the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive, designing and organising its hydraulics lab.

Then, in 1952 he joined Halcrow, beginning a relationship that would dominate his professional life. By the time he retired he was the firm’s senior partner. Halcrow’s current chief executive Peter Gammie said Muir Wood was simply an inspirational man: “Sir Alan was not just an extraordinary engineer, but also an extraordinary person.

“He was a role model to others and very active in meeting other people.”

Friends of Muir Wood said his infectious enthusiasm gave him the air of a much younger man, and he revelled in debate.

Imperial College senior research investigator and leading civil engineer Professor John Burland knew Muir Wood for 40 years: “He is known for his expertise in tunnelling, but his knowledge was wider than that.

“He was a civil engineer of very broad interests. He made a significant contribution to tunnelling, but in other areas as well – he wrote a book on coastal engineering and was very interested in hydraulics.”

Upon joining Halcrow, Muir Wood began work on a project he would return to again and again over the next 20 years – the design of the Channel Tunnel.

His name became synonymous with tunnelling, working on South Africa’s 80km Orange Fish Tunnel, the Clyde Tunnel, Potters Bar rail tunnel and Heathrow airport cargo tunnel.

He also advised on the alignment for the Jubilee Line extension.

ICE director general Tom Foulkes described Muir Wood as: “One of ICE’s most distinguished presidents and amongst the very greatest civil engineers of his generation. He was a towering figure with a global reputation and he will be sadly missed by very many people all around the world.”

Burland described Muir Wood as “keen on the fundamentals”.

“He wanted the fundamentals right, and was intolerant of woolly thinking,” said Burland. Once Burland contacted Muir Wood to advise the organisers of the Henley Regatta, who wanted to build a tunnel to take spectators across the Thames.

“We set up a lunch, and when Alan came he said to the people ‘You have the wrong idea’, and explained that what they really needed was a temporary bridge, and not a tunnel at all.”

Muir Wood retired in 1984 but continued to work as an expert witness and consultant, and was honorary president of the International Tunnelling Association until his death.

His passion for civil engineering meant he corresponded regularly with NCE, becoming closely involved with its campaign to rescue Brunel’s Thames Tunnel from a plan to shroud its lining with spray concrete.

Muir Wood was known to work tirelessly, and published a textbook as recently as 2004 entitled Civil Engineering in Context.

Gammie said: “He worked up to the end. He always had a view and he had real passion for engineering. He believed in it. He was a prolific letter writer and had great enthusiasm. People reacted to that.”

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