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Letters: Christmas rail chaos: ORR must be in the frame too

Rail chaos December 2015

Finsbury Park: Where was the crowd control?

In his response last week to your Comment [regarding the rail regulator’s role in the Christmas rail chaos], Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) director of planning and performance Alan Price was very quick to raise a defence in the safety versus costs argument.

However the safety commitment at ORR is not in question. Safety is more than adequately championed by the Rail Safety Directorate (RSD); it is the preoccupation with economic theory and efficiency savings against sound, practical, operational and engineering common sense that is being debated.

When the ORR published its determination for funding Network Rail for the five-year control period 2014 to 2019 (CP5) in October 2013, it realised that it could not be too precise about the funding for its enhancement projects. As a consequence, it established the “enhancement cost adjustment mechanism” (ECAM) on the basis that in the determination it recognised that “many of the projects (about £7bn of £12.4bn) were at an early stage of development, with high degrees of uncertainty and risk. This made it difficult to determine efficient levels of funding”. Shortly after, Network Rail announced that there was a potential “black hole” in the funding for many of these projects and sought to amend its enhancements delivery plan. The ORR promptly dispatched economic staff to Network Rail to help count the beans.

The ORR has stated that its role in the ECAM process is “to assess in detail whether each element of a project is adequate to deliver the intended benefits for rail users; whether it adequately reflects delivery risks; and whether it reflects best efficient practice”. While the projects involved in the recent delays over Christmas and at London Bridge may not have been subjected to ECAM (having been initially funded from CP4 or earlier), surely it is the ORR’s role to apply these as a basic principles throughout all its assessments. If it is really holding Network Rail to account, as Price says “in assessing Network Rail’s plans and work on the network”, it must have had ample opportunity to consider the operational and engineering feasibility of all these projects and question whether delivery aspirations were realistic, and in the words of its chief executive “consistent with getting the best value for rail users and taxpayers”.

The ORR is due to present its report on the Christmas failings to its own board on 30 January. It will be interesting to see if its own involvement gets a mention and in its own words, “whether it adequately reflects delivery risks”.

  • Nicolas Philipps

I note Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne’s measured remarks and apologies for the debacle at Finsbury Park and elsewhere over the Christmas Holiday period.

But he failed to address what many would see as the main issue. Firstly, despite the media coverage, this is not an issue about his (very reasonable) bonus provision.

Secondly, it is not about the failure of the engineering contractors to finish the work within the specified time. With such a large number of projects to manage, inevitably some will fail to complete on time.

What was inexcusable was the lack of adequate contingency plans in place to manage the situation.

When an airport closes, often due to bad weather, there are well rehearsed contingency measures which are implemented. This was not apparent with Network Rail’s Christmas fiasco.

Network Rail did appear to have some idea of what to do as they diverted passengers to Finsbury Park which, with a little more attention to detail, could have coped, albeit with some delays.

The pictures which the media (including NCE) splashed about did not focus on the engineering projects rather the unconstrained masses of people trying to enter the station. Now dealing with this type of problem is not rocket science.

Local councils and event organisers all have available copious supplies of crowd control barriers and the ability to provide short term staff to deal with such eventualities.

While not providing a complete solution, such measures would at least have given the impression that Network Rail was in control of the situation and knew what it was doing. Sadly the converse prevailed.

  • Peter Styles, Station House, Kingsbury, Warks B78 2DX

Two issues strike me around Network Rail’s handling of the Christmas rail chaos. First, if chief executive Mark Carne failed to achieve his target to get a bonus, he did not forego it, he wasn’t entitled to it.

Second: doesn’t Network Rail (or others) supervise the work? There must have been someone to accept the necessary paperwork, so why didn’t they chase it up?

Although it appears that the contractor made the initial error, surely there is also an error with the client? Is this a case where it is easy to impose a fine on a contractor, who may be reluctant to expose shortcomings with the client for fear that they will not be offered further work?

  • Derek Bissell (M retd)


Engineers do apply science to engineering

Professor David Blockley’s long and elaborate letter, with its emphasis on “academic rigour” and “practical rigour”, misses out an important core element of engineering education (NCE 8 January).

The engineering profession is generally involved in solving a wide range of practical problems, in the course of creating its great works.

Some of these problems have been solved long ago, and their results codified into rules and design formulas.

Other problems are more challenging, as when an unprecedented project is to be undertaken. Here the engineer must first think hard and imaginatively about the problem; form working hypotheses or assumptions about the way forward; devise and conduct experiments to test these hypotheses; and eventually reach a level of confidence about the way ahead.

That whole procedure is, of course, well known and understood as “scientific method”.

For example, Thomas Telford, in designing the pioneering Menai Strait suspension bridge in the 1820s, conducted many thorough experiments to establish the relations he required between the span, the dip, the loading and the tension in the chains or cables. And he also adopted large margins for error.

Some pioneering projects succeed; but others fail, sometimes catastrophically.

Such failures always teach us important lessons. For example, within a month of its opening, the Menai Bridge was badly damaged by storms: the roadway had to be replaced, and the chains cross-braced.

That situation alerted us to the power of the wind.

But the overall Menai design scheme had a sufficient margin of safety, and the bridge has out-lasted many contemporary bridges built by less thoughtful and careful engineers.

Indeed, bridges in general provide us with an instructive series of catastrophic failures: for example, the spectacular collapse of the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge in 1940; several failures of major thin-walled box-girder bridges in the 1970s; and the “wobbling” of London’s Millennium bridge in 2000.

Failures also occur, of course, in structures designed according to well-established codes: for example, many concrete bridges and other structures, including the major Hammersmith flyover, have failed in the past few decades.

In all of these cases something has happened that was not anticipated by the design engineer.

In the examples cited above, these were, respectively: unanticipated wind-induced oscillation of a flexible structure; unanticipated buckling of thin-walled boxes under
bending load; unanticipated pedestrian-induced oscillation; unanticipated weakness of new kinds of concrete, inadequate design against shear failure, and corrosion of reinforcing and prestressing steel.

In other words, in all of these cases the agreed principles of design had omitted some aspect of behaviour which turned out to be critical.

In relation to Blockley’s letter I therefore make three points.

First, it is not helpful of him to assert that “engineering is not applied science”; since all engineering analysis uses the proven investigative methods of science, as outlined above.

Second, I believe that case studies, and particularly those of failures, should be included in lecture courses for engineering students, to alert future engineers to the danger of over-confidence - as indeed they are (and have been, for many years) in our engineering department at Cambridge.

Third, it is of critical importance to include experimental work in engineering courses; with, preferably, some experiments which show that conventional theoretical ideas can sometimes be inadequate.
In this connection, it seems to me that those design engineers who live entirely in a world of desks and computers, and who lose sight of physical experiments, will be prone to make serious mistakes.

Finally, I make a plea to the editorial staff of NCE. May we please have more reports on engineering failures, to remind us of the complexity of the physical world, and to jolt us out of our tendency to complacency?

  • Professor CR Calladine (F)department of engineering, University of Cambridge, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1PZ


Teaching without qualifications

I have recently learned of a university department, having no staff with professional qualifications in a particular (non-engineering) discipline while presenting itself as a leading establishment.

This led me to wonder if there any figures for the number and proportion of chartered civil engineers in our university departments and where to find these. Are they collated anywhere? Does the Institution give advice on this? What is the Joint Board of Moderators’ position? It seems to me that students, prospective students and employers have a right to know.

  • David Tonks (F) 5, Hazelwood Road, Wilmslow

Teaching without qualifications

Philip Brown’s comments on the balance required between academic and practical rigour (NCE 8 January)were particularly of interest to me as a chartered civil engineer who qualified by serving articles and taking the direct examinations of the ICE. The combination of academic knowledge and practical experience allowed me to become chartered at 26.

I was never clear as to why the ICE abandoned this route.

I have had a very successful career in civil engineering contracting and consultancy. And what is perhaps more important is that it has been a very happy and satisfying way of earning a living.

The Institution needs to rethink what is needed to provide and qualify our future engineers and find a balance between academic and practical rigour.

  • James Thomson (M)

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