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Industry needs to learn wider HEX lessons

Comment

On the face of it, Geoconsult's continued protestations of innocence over the 1994 Heathrow Express tunnel collapse case look optimistic. Certainly the Health & Safety Executive thinks so. Last week its report into what it describes as the 'worst civil engineering disaster in the last quarter century' is clear about the causes. It lends no weight to Geoconsult's claims that unforeseen, and so far uninvestigated ground conditions played a part.

As a learning tool, the report is a valuable piece of work. It paints a picture of poor workmanship, poor design, poor engineering judgment and, at times, a sheer absence of common sense.

Every young engineer should read it and digest what can happen if the basics are forgotten, the risks are not appreciated and the mechanisms for checking and putting right errors are missing.

'It was an expensive way to relearn what was already known, ' said tunnelling guru and independent member of the HSE's investigation team, Sir Alan Muir Wood at the launch of the report. It was a sentiment that few could disagree with.

However many observers would agree that the report does not tell the whole story. It has an angle - there is spin - which comes from the HSE's need to secure a successful prosecution after this high profile collapse.

As Geoconsult's QC Arthur Marriott points out: 'A legal case is not a proper foundation for a technical report. . . and this report is not a substitute for a full inquiry. The truth has two sides.'

His point is that the HSE's investigation concentrated on the facts needed to secure convictions and consequently misses the wider implications.

But the collapse also exposed a wider set of problems which are also touched on in the report.

One involves flaws in BAA's procurement procedure and its subsequent supervision of the project.

BAA did not feature in the HSE prosecution. Arguably, it was easier to secure a conviction by highlighting poor quality design and construction than it would have been to convince a jury that inappropriate procurement had played a part.

Another problem surrounds HSE's role in the accident. HSE itself also has lessons to learn.

Inspectors visited the Heathrow site immeditately after a similar tunnel collapsed in Munich, but paid little attention to tunnel excavation work.

They were more interested in fire safety matters. This was despite the fact that the HEX tunnels were using NATM in soft ground for the first time in the UK.

So while Geoconsult's demands for a public inquiry are clearly impractical - it has already taken six years to release the HSE report - some mechanism is needed to help the industry access these wider lessons.

Perhaps the answer could be a forum, which does not prejudice those involved commercially or legally.

Two years ago NCE put the case for a confidential panindustry reporting system. Fallout from the Heathrow collapse adds weight to the argument.

Antony Oliver is deputy editor of NCE

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