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If we plan to protect infrastructure, we can play in the snow

Good engineering design will help protect us from the effects of freak weather, says NCE’s editor, Antony Oliver.

Two stories this week highlight the challenge faced by UK infrastructure asset managers – namely what are we prepared to spend to keep critical services up and running?

First the weather. And while the national media has been working very hard to try to find the “we should have been better prepared” story, it is clear that really little more could – or should – have been done to keep trains, buses, cars or lorries moving.

Yet it has been estimated that Monday’s weather cost the UK more that £1bn through lost business and productivity. Should we not conclude that this money would be better invested in most robust infrastructure? Should we not identify where and why the transport systems fell down and then invest to ensure that this never happens again? Well of course not.

The last few days have seen the kind of extreme weather that we cannot expect to deal with as a matter of course. And cost-benefit and risk analysis would clearly bear this out.

For a start, this analysis would question how much of that lost business is really actually lost forever. Taken over the whole month of February, say, would shop takings or business output really show this dip. And how many of the man hours lost to family snowman construction on Monday will be caught up by Friday?

Yet in contrast to this successful infrastructure risk assessment and operation we also this week report on decisions being made at the Channel Tunnel in the wake of last September’s fire.

At last Eurotunnel seems to have woken up to the fact that protecting the tunnel infrastructure is every bit as critical to its activities as protecting passenger safety. At last it is looking seriously at installing a fire suppression system for the structure. The sad thing is that this cash-strapped business had to spend £54M repairing the damage from last September’s fire and lose another £180M of business in the five months it took to make the tunnel fully operational.

This after the first fire in 1996 cost it an estimated £200M. Eurotunnel first considered an onboard fire suppression system with successful trials in 2004. However, as NCE revealed in October, plans were dumped by a new management team in 2006, after concluding that “the system would be unreliable, expensive to maintain and would deliver few benefits to the safety of persons”.

Yet, three years, two more fires and some £234M in repairs and lost business later Eurotunnel has now concluded: “We are now looking at preserving the infrastructure.”

Any user of Eurotunnel’s cross channel rail service should be relieved to see that, as with the UK’s response to severe weather, good engineering judgement is at last prevailing.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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