Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

How far have we really come in the last 50 years?

Without a doubt the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow is an impressive building, an impressive gateway to the nation and an impressive construction achievement.

It is right that The Queen once again led the celebration – as she did last November at the St Pancras opening of the new High Speed 1 rail line – of another project completed pretty much on time and to budget.

The debate over expansion of UK airports will rumble on. But regardless, it is clear that T5 has set a new benchmark for UK public infrastructure quality, created national pride and provided a visible reminder of the scale of this industry's achievements.

On this basis it is very welcome. As a profession we pride ourselves on the greater efficiency of the modern construction industry. We pride ourselves on the levels of innovation now brought to the process. And we pride ourselves on our ability to tackle the most complex and demanding jobs.

But hang on a minute, have we really come that far? Have we really got any better at creating world class infrastructure today than yesterday?

After all, 50 years ago this week work on the M1 started and just 19 months and 9 days later 118km of dual three-lane motorway was complete with 183 bridges, 12 grade separated junctions and over 100Mm3 of earthworks.

It was an achievement of epic proportions and cost just £23M. All the more remarkable given the basic plant, the absence of computers and satellite positioning and the limited on-site communications.

Then there was the weather. One of the wettest summers on record in 1958 was followed by an unusually hot summer in 1959 which brought huge excavation, compaction, dust and surfacing challenges.

Yet they completed the task. The M1 was opened to national acclaim and wonder, quickly becoming not just a route but a destination in its own right for motorists.

Love motorways or hate them it is clear that the M1 changed life in the UK at a sweep. The motorway expansion that followed highlights this and demonstrates the way engineering is able to impact lives.

Yet we seem to have failed to build on the transport revolution kick-started by the M1. We have not matched the public's desire to travel with alternatives to or for the car.

So yes we need to milk to success of our engineering projects and underline to the public what we can achieve through bold engineering, innovation and expertise.

But it is not enough. Our real challenge today is to come up with radical transport solutions – be they road, rail or air – that, as M1 did 50 years ago, positively alter the public's attitude to transport. And we seem some way from that right now.

- Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.