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Letters: Fracking response needs care



Two professors quoted in the letters pages of NCE refer to the report of the Royal Academy of Engineering/Royal Society on this issue (NCE 22-29 August). The industry needs to take some care as it responds to government bodies in reporting on sensitive topics where there is public nervousness.

Does it say: “Yes, do frack - but you’ll need to do X (strong regulatory framework, robust risk assessment, comprehensive monitoring regimes) if it’s to be safe?” Or does it say: “No, don’t frack - not until you have put in place X and we’ll let you know when the X you are putting in place is good enough for us to say yes”?

In other words, do we want to be seen by the public as retaining some element of professional control, or do we prefer to be seen “trusting” government to do the right thing?

There are very large numbers in our country that because of past government actions will tend to disbelieve anything governments say.

Our professional institutions do not benefit from being tarred with the same brush.

We should be seen by the public to be acting as independent professional bodies, holding governments to deliver on sound
and safe practice and using every lever we have to do that.

This may seem like semantics to some, but I would suggest we can only build real trust in engineering and scientific professionalism by making sure that is how we are seen to be acting.

● Tim Hall (M), Pear Tree House, Gardeners Lane, Upper Basildon, Reading RG8 8NP

Standards are key to UK construction’s success at home

Mark Hansford’s leader “Why we need Spanish, French and German lessons” (NCE 22-29 August) made a valid point. A regular flow of infrastructure work can help ensure that UK contractors maintain the strongest skills and expertise.

However, it is not enough for the government to commission infrastructure projects and hope that UK firms succeed. The procurement process must ensure that UK contractors are on a level playing field with firms in the European Union and beyond.

By including recognised standards in the procurement processes - for example, the Register of Qualified Steelwork Contractors for Bridgeworks in the case of structural steelwork for bridges - the government can have greater confidence that high quality standards will be met and that the UK economy will benefit from the full potential of its investment.

You only have to look at projects like the Cutty Sark project in Greenwich and the Emirates Air Line to see that UK steelwork contractors are some of the best in the world. They have the skills and capacity to deliver large scale and complex infrastructure projects - it is critical for the sector and for the wider economy that the procurement process allows them an equal footing.

  • Sarah McCann Bartlett, director general, British Constructional Steelwork Association,


Pooling climate change knowledge

Catastrophic failures in the built and natural environment resulting from climate extremes such as flooding have become all too familiar. Developing optimal responses to these failures and our increasing vulnerability to extremes is essential.

Addressing this requires strong communication links between the civil engineering communty and climate scientists. But these links have often lacked the essential component of a two-way interaction promoting clear communication of the core issues.

In response, the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in the United States recently hosted a workshop to improve communication between climate scientists and civil engineering practitioners. Attendees included representatives from CH2M Hill, Aecom, Amec, and MWH Global in addition to world-renowned climate scientists.

Three discussion sessions explored current vulnerability and engineered responses to climate extremes; political, economic, societal and regulatory constraints; and possible ways to change the status quo.

Participants identified a need to move from “fail safe” design, which often engenders higher consequences in the event of failure, to designs that allow “graceful failure” in a portfolio of risk management options.

A requirement for improved interdisciplinary communication and collaboration was also a recurrent theme. As many systems may be more vulnerable to non-climate stresses (such as insufficient maintenance), a sea change is required in the use of future climate information whereby decision makers focus first on critical hazards and vulnerabilities, then bring the climate science in to address the direct issues at hand.

Further information is available at

  • Mari Jones (M), postgraduate scientist, Regional Climate Section, MMM National Center for Atmospheric Research PO Box 3000, Boulder, Colorado 80307-3000 United States

Box ticking increases costs

There has been an ongoing debate about high UK construction costs. In my view the lack of trust and the need to tick every box leads to increased costs.
Let me give you a small example: My office is in Burnley, a former mining area. But when writing site investigation reports for other areas a phrase such as “this site is not in a coal mining area” used to suffice. Nine words, cost zero.

Now I find I am frequently asked to prove this and that requires a Coal Authority report. These run to six pages, which then need to be summarised and explained in the report. This results in seven extra pages and costs about £100.

This prove it/audit trail/tick list view is widespread and these small examples multiply up into massive extra and unnecessary costs. Perhaps I should be grateful for the extra income but it does seem a waste.

  • Graham Cannon (M), managing director, Worms Eye, Cannon House, 52 Bank Parade, Burnley, Lancashire BB11 1TS

Engineers must have academic ability

I note with a little dismay that entries to the NCE Graduate Awards “don’t have to be academic whizzkids” (NCE 29 August).

Statements such as this in my view are a manifestation of the current trend within our profession (and to an extent society in general) to water down academic standards and technical ability. In any profession, an exceptional academic ability should be a prerequisite for celebrated “high flyers” not a “nice to have”.

During initial professional development (IPD) civil engineers are being inculcated in the need to be “socially conscious”, “environmentally friendly” and “safety aware”. These are highly laudable traits, and I would in no way wish to get rid of them or water down their importance, but I do have concerns that we are perhaps starting to get the balance wrong.

We need to realise as a profession that if we are to tackle the massive problems posed by issues such as climate change and a growing population awareness, desire and enthusiasm are simply not enough on their own.

We need to make sure the education system and IPD furnishes them with technical and scientific excellence.

It’s fantastic we have an abundance of young engineers still wishing to “direct the great sources of power in nature” but they need to have the academic ability to apply scientific principles to achieve it.

  • Andy Stanford (F), director Walsh Group, 32 Lafone Street London SE1 2LX

Preparing for all eventualities


Former chancellor Alistair Darling recently raised three important issues about High Speed 2 (HS2): Will investment in HS2 squeeze out investment elsewhere in rail schemes? Are HS2’s initial plans too Birmingham-centric? And has the changed economic situation thwarted the opportunity for HS2?
Other politicians have responded by saying they believe the answers are “no”, but I and many others need to be convinced.

HS2 is to update its Phase 1 plans and case next month in a submission to Parliament, which I reckon needs to present two scenarios.

These should be one which is close to its current plans to represent the fastest realistic spend on HS2 and a bleaker scenario in case things are as bleak as Darling fears.

Ideally the bleak scenario ought to reduce annual spend to around 60% of HS2’s planned annual expenditure, yet generate some benefits and free up capacity on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) to the same time scale as HS2’s current plans.
That ought to be practical if:

  • Interim Phase 1 services are thinner while Birmingham Curzon Street and the Euston rebuild are delayed to a Phase 1b.
  • Eurostar can be persuaded to sub-lease platforms 4 and 5 at St Pancras while Phase 1b is being built.
  • Interim HS2 services are provided, making no use of Euston, maximum use of Old Oak Common and maximum use of the St Pancras platform capacity.

Three of four classic compatible trains per hour - from St Pancras to Birmingham Interchange, Crewe, Stoke, Stockport & Manchester - can be squeezed into those two platforms and some of the WCML Manchester paths used by local WCML services.

  • Stuart Porter (M), 107 Headlands, Kettering, Northamptonshire, NN15 6AB

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