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Letters: A suggestion on how we can stimulate our métier

David Balmforth

Balmforth: Passion for teaching

Like David Balmforth I became a civil engineer because I wanted to benefit society while earning a comfortable living. In the heyday of my retirement, I have time to reflect and sometimes provide a little lateral thinking on the current issues. Why don’t we celebrate success?

He goes on to talk about the reasons we don’t innovate as much as we should and examines possible reasons.

Obviously, we all know about commercial sensitivities but he made no mention of the main reason. NIHS or “not invented here syndrome” is, in my experience, the commonest cause of inertia. “We’re not going to do it because we didn’t think of it”.

He shares a passion for teaching and enthusing the next generation alongside a support for CPD. Why not bring the two together? Award CPD hours for everyone who goes back to the school they attended to give an afternoon’s talk on their experiences with practical demonstrations. Couldn’t the ICE develop some standard modules to help out with this?

Further on, I note his comments on “knowledge sharing” , a cause which I have embraced since taking full-time retirement. All of my papers and presentations on asset management and strategy development are published online. Is it just a vanity project for my own satisfaction or does it do some good? Site stats and feedback suggest the latter.

Good luck in your quest, David, a breath of fresh air?

  • Peter Styles,

A contemporary take on the use of slip coaches

Without wishing to confuse the issue of slip coaches further, it is worth noting that the European rail networks in France and Germany at least already mix and match their TGV and ICE services. For example, TGVs from two different departure points are coupled together at Lyon before travelling together to Lille, where one continues to Brussels and the other could easily continue to Boulogne, instead of terminating.

Likewise it is possible to save an hour between Frankfurt am Main airport and Cologne station by transferring from an ICE train, which follows the classic Rhine valley route to one which uses the high speed line between these two cities and that train, arriving from Munich also consists of two ICE units, one of which continues to Amsterdam, while the other terminates at Cologne but could equally continue say to Hamburg. All these trains have air smoothed extremities but are easily coupled and uncoupled in a few seconds.

True, I speak of larger countries and more intermediate stops, where one might transfer from one half of the train to the other. Conventional trains on international routes also have portions that are attached and detached at intermediate points with usually quite short delays; and have done so for many, many years.

So the idea is not new. But the problem in Britain is that our “hub” is in the wrong place. Birmingham would have been ideal, rather than some city in the south east corner of the country. But unfortunately Birmingham’s High Speed 2 station is planned as a terminus.

  • Philip Worsfold (M retd), European vice-president, Association Européenne des Cheminots,


The right way to deliver High Speed 2

High Speed 2 chief executive Simon Kirby describes his selected procurement method as one in which the design and build contractors are selected and the design carried out before the hybrid bill receives Royal Assent (NCE 23 October).

This procedure was adopted very successfully for the DBFO contracts for Dartford Bridge and for the Second Severn Crossing.

A performance specification defines the rules, the tenderers select their own scheme within the rules, and the owner gets details of the preferred scheme and the likely cost before the scheme descriptions and the constraints within the hybrid bill are written.

This is the fastest way to implement a major project and should be adopted by other agencies with major works to execute. However, as with the two bridges above, fairness dictates that if the bill fails the contractors should be paid their abortive costs.

  • Malcolm Fletcher (F), 8 The Green, Aldbourne SN8 2BW


Software is all very well, but humans matter

I totally agree with Tony Gould’s Viewpoint (NCE 16 October). As a consulting engineer I spend some of my time checking calculations submitted to Local Authority Building Control, and consider that software is used all too frequently without applying engineering judgement on the results.

I recently checked some calculations for a relatively heavily loaded timber beam of span approaching 5m and the computer output gave a deflection of only 0.5mm. This should have rung alarm bells that something was wrong. On another occasion I was speaking to two engineering graduates about the timber design they were undertaking and was alarmed to discover that they didn’t know which Code of Practice they were designing to - they said it was all taken care of by the computer.

While I accept that we do need engineering software, there is still a place for hand calculations for small projects.

  • Derek Button, Peasedown St John, Bath,

The correct site of German forgetfulness

I was fascinated by the Chrimes Watch article on two of Germany’s cathedrals, Ulm and Cologne, and hesitate to criticise but the reference to a “medieval timber crane left standing on the south tower for centuries” should be for Cologne, not Ulm. Creaks and groans from the structure of the crane could be heard throughout the city when the wind blew.

  • Chris Jones (M retd),


Engineers must visit schools if we want to compete

Perhaps John Williams does not have such long teeth (Letters 30 October), but I recall a scheme, in the late 1980s/early 1990s, called Opening Windows where about 30 of us engineers of all types went and talked to 12-13 year olds in school about what they, as individuals, did as professional engineers.

Nothing like having, inter alia, a real hip joint (in formaldehyde) passed around the class in a talk about hip joints to raise interest.

The premise, which I consider still holds true, is that teachers know about architects, accountants, bank managers, doctors and many other professions because they come across them in their lives.

As a rule, they do not know about engineers, especially those in design and construction, because engineers generally don’t deal with the public.

An exercise in bridge building, or similar, often used as a contact point, is just another project as far as the children are concerned, and does not tell them what engineering is about and what it is to be an engineer.

That group acted in Hertfordshire under the aegis of the local region. Something like that would still be relevant.

  • Nick Eckford (M),


Hammersmith flyover is a national treasure

Will Mann’s article on the proposed Hammersmith flyunder was interesting (NCE 23 October). The paradox is that the A4 Hogarth flyover 3km down the road - a temporary structure built in 1971 - will still be working long after the “permanent” Hammersmith flyover, built in 1961, is pulled down. But the Hogarth flyover is probably one of the ugliest structures ever built.

The graceful lines of the Hammersmith flyover should be preserved; it is one of the finest examples of concrete structures in London. It needs to be listed.

Perhaps trams should replace cars on the A4; a permanent traffic jam caused by the bottleneck at Earls Court running into Knightsbridge. No amount of tunnels, however long, will resolve this congestion which I have endured for over 50 years.

  • Graham Ward (M),

More creative approach to Network Rail needed


Rail: Is regulator too intrusive?

Alan Price, in his interesting piece explaining the Office of the Rail Regulator’s (ORR’s) regulation of Network Rail (NCE 10 July) seems to be indicating a more intrusive approach to regulation of the national rail infrastructure provider as a means to deliver improved performance of Britain’s railways.

He cites inadequate knowledge of drainage and embankments’ condition as a reason for Network Rail’s lack of progress on performance improvement, and so has set targets specific to asset knowledge and data quality.

Why does he think this will make the trains run better to time?

Next, he states the self-evident truth that Network Rail needs to manage its assets effectively, saying it needs to move from a costly “find and fix” to a (presumed efficient) “predict and prevent” approach.

This I suspect is not easy, nor guaranteed to be more efficient or effective - but it is also not new. Network Rail had this as its mantra 10 years ago to my knowledge, and probably Railtrack and British Rail had it before then. While he is right to want the “right precursors” (of failure) to be monitored, Network Rail also needs to consider the effect on service that consequent interventions will have.

It is not clear, moreover, that a “predict and prevent” approach will of itself enhance performance, safety and efficiency - or deliver improved service to passengers and freight.

I suggest the ORR needs to be a little more innovative and less intrusive in its regulation of Network Rail.

It might be worthwhile for it to consider the changes its fellow monopoly economic regulators are making in lightening their regulatory touch, and enabling the regulated companies to manage their own assets suitably to deliver service to their customers.

  • Steve Bottom,

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