Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Letters: HS2 saga is reminiscent of High Speed 1

High Speed 1

The High Speed 2 (HS2) select committee scheduled the afternoon of 30 November to hear presentations from petitioners with alternative proposals for Euston and its London approach. A common theme of these is to drastically reduce the 20 year Euston construction period, currently extending from 2016 to 2033 for the HS2 platforms, plus an undefined period for rebuilding the classic station. Above all, the proposals minimise the construction impacts on homes and businesses. Petitioners and their expert witnesses presented the Euston Express and High Speed UK schemes and a double-deck solution for Euston, as well as proposing a temporary terminus at Old Oak Common, while the London approach and connection with High Speed 1 (HS1) and Crossrail 2 were given further consideration.

High Speed 1

High Speed 1

High Speed 1: Lessons from the 1980s appear to have been forgotten

Unpersuaded by the promoter’s critique, and driven by HS2’s ludicrous Euston construction programme and its generation-long impacts on the community, petitioners and their engineering advisers are calling for an independent review. This, however, raises some serious questions. To find a consultant that has no stake in the government’s distribution of consultancy contracts is a tall order. The engineering industry in the UK is hopelessly compromised by HS2 and no independent review will come from that quarter. What is needed is a European firm that sees a strong competitive advantage in demonstrating its capability, however much this may antagonise HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport. 

With regard to an inner city high speed terminus, we have been here before. The parallels are striking but we have failed to absorb the lessons. British Rail, under funding pressure, realised in the late 1980s that bringing the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (now HS1) to King’s Cross would raise the commercial value of the disused railway lands to the north. Homes and workplaces at the southern end of Caledonian Road were to be bulldozed to create the approach. Despite strong community opposition and reports from various bodies, British Rail took the Bill as far as its Third Reading in the Lords before the government pulled the plug. On 24 January 1994 transport secretary John MacGregor, announced that St Pancras had been chosen as the terminus and British Rail had been instructed to withdraw the King’s Cross Railway Bill.

Promoters must listen to the local community rather than engage in hollow consultation designed to deliver to the multitude the tablets of stone already inscribed by their engineering teams. As Frank Dobson, who retired as MP for Camden at the 2015 election told the select committee, the local community has repeatedly shown itself to have all the common sense that the promoters lack.

Humanities A-levels can help engineers

Your Comment on A-level physics and the subsequent letters deserve all the support they can get.

My observation over a lifetime in the profession, including several years as an examiner, has convinced me that a requirement to choose the subject at that level is not really of any benefit to the majority of us.   My good A-level in physics was not once called upon in a career which ranged from work  experience fitting big-end bearings for marine diesel engines to senior partner of a medium-sized firm of consulting engineers. 

What was extremely important, however, was a good basic understanding of the subject together with the broad O-level education that it came with. Thereafter, A-level English was invaluable; the engineering principles came with the degree; and practice of the art together with the other knowledge and skills needed was picked up along the way. If the ICE’s third requirement were to be a choice between physics and any one of the humanities, possibly with a voluntary additional second language that could be taken into account, our profession would be greatly strengthened.

  • Tony Greeves (F)

Inspiring young engineers with maths

Congratulations to Michelle Hicks on becoming this year’s NCE Graduate of the Year (NCE 3 December). I was particularly struck by the fact that she was first encouraged to become an engineer following a lecture on rollercoaster design. 

I give this particular lecture several times a year to school pupils, as part of a programme called Maths Inspiration, which is aimed at encouraging pupils to study Maths at A-level, and thereby ensure that they can progress to further education in engineering (and science) subjects.

I can’t claim to remember her from this – but that’s hardly surprising as about 10,000 school pupils have heard my talk since I first started doing this about nine or 10 years ago. These talks have been supported by the Institution of Structural Engineers for several years, and the ICE, Institution of Mechanical Engineers and Institute of Engineering Technicians have become sponsors for the first time this month. 

  • John Roberts (F)

 Why engineers need physics

When interviewing graduate engineers at my place of work it was customary to give them a short test, the first problem being to choose which weighed closer to 4kN; 4,000 apples, an African elephant, or a 40t truck. Given that literally an order of magnitude separated each option, a surprising number of graduates got this question wrong!

Studying physics instils at least a rudimentary grasp of SI units and how the simpler of these relate to everyday objects. It also lays solid foundations for related fields like materials science.

Granted, there are areas of the subject that a civil engineer might never use but then you might say the same for a great deal of the esoteric maths which is foisted on engineering students. Our consultancy office certainly doesn’t see a lot of matrix transposition or advanced calculus being perpetrated on a daily basis. And this is to say nothing of whether geography, or any number of other “softer” subjects, are useful in their entirety.

Perhaps all this is in the nature of further education, which is by necessity broad-based, and the only way round it is for university engineering departments to implement a weighting system, in which a hypothetical “engineering foundation A-Level” might be weighted at 100%, maths and physics at 80%, geography 60%, shading off into marginal subjects like sociology and psychology at 20%.

So studying geography would not exclude one from a degree course, but subjects more closely allied to engineering would be favoured. Would this approach benefit the field of engineering?

  • David Redford

 Common cause of physics and civil engineering

I believe that the definition of physics as generally understood means: “the branch of science concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy. The subject matter of physics includes mechanics, heat, light and other radiation, sound, electricity, magnetism, and the structure of atoms.”

It would seem reasonable that this fits very well with the purpose of our Institution established nearly 200 years ago for the “general advancement of mechanical science and more particularly for promoting the acquisition of that species of knowledge which constitutes the profession of a civil engineer, being the art of directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of Man”.

The definitions of “physics” and “civil engineer” seem very clear and compatible. Why is there a debate as to whether or not civil engineers need A-level physics? Is it because physics requires hard work? If this is the case and students are looking for an easier path into our profession, then this is a sorry state to have been reached.

For years, civil engineers have complained as to their position in society. I would suggest that to allow budding civil engineers to opt for less challenging subjects would not be in the best interests of our profession. Engineers should be able to understand the stresses and strains of the materials they work with and as such an understanding of physics.

In a recent edition of NCE the view was expressed by employers that engineering graduates are not meeting the requirements demanded by our industry. This is disappointing and will certainly not be helped by lowering academic standards. 

  • Derek Godfrey (F)

Editor’s note: We are planning to organise a debate on this clearly hot topic early in the New Year. If you would like to participate, please email setting out your position.

How rail sector preserves costs status quo

rail work

rail work

Rail work: Is the regulatory system set up to produce cost overruns?

Your recent series of articles about Network Rail’s anticipated cost explosion on its enhancement and electrification projects raises the obvious question, what was the regulator (then the Office of Rail Regulation, now the Office of Rail and Road, but still ORR) doing when assessing and signing off Network Rail’s proposals during its Periodic Reviews in 2008 and 2013? 

This point was not missed by the Commons public accounts committee when it recently interrogated Network Rail, the Department for Transport and the ORR. Facing repeated questions as to why he had not resigned, ORR chief executive Richard Price defended his position by stating that it would be more effective for him to remain in post and keep up the pressure and to continue to hold Network Rail to account. This logic did not impress MPs, given the ORR’s track record so far.

MPs pointed out to Price that he was “only an economist” with little knowledge or understanding of the industry he regulated. Price responded that the ORR had a wealth of experience to support him. 

Unfortunately the ORR’s meagre railway operational and engineering resource is heavily outnumbered and, more crucially, outvoted by economists who demand arbitrary “efficiency savings” with little understanding of how they would be achieved in practice. 

Network Rail grudgingly accepts these budget cuts knowing full well that, once a job had started, no one would be brave enough to stop it before completion and at the end of the day, it will cost what it costs with the taxpayers’ subsidy picking up the bill anyway.

  • Nicolas Philipps,


High Speed links for airports in southern England

Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris Charles de Gaulle, and Zurich airports are all directly served by national and international high speed rail. But Gatwick? Heathrow? Nowhere near. High Speed 1 and High Speed 2 miss both. Whatever happened to our integrated transport policy?

Back to basics: with a short (50km) length of new high speed track between Luton and Stansted linking the East Midlands/St Pancras International and the Stort/Lea Valley lines, those airports would be just 10 minutes apart, and well served by rail and road. In turn they could serve, beside the South East, much of England. Two readymade air terminals a new global hub: London South Midlands Airport! Then, Heathrow can progressively become a local, low-traffic aerodrome like Orly, while Gatwick continues to serve south of the Thames. 

The economics are very persuasive. How about it, Lord Adonis and friends?

  • Roger Juer, (M retd)

 Garden Bridge misnomer

garden bridge

garden bridge

Garden bridge: Can it really be described as iconic?

For those of us who have spent a fair proportion of our working lives arranging to remove vegetation from viaducts, to actually put a garden on one strikes me as a bridge to far.

I know beauty lies in the eye of the beholder but I feel the description iconic should be replaced by awful.

  • John Woods (M) 

Friends in high places

You may be interested in drawing attention to the fact that Mauricio Macri, just elected to the presidency of Argentina, qualified as a civil engineer. His firm associated with Thames Water during the bidding for the Buenos Aires water and sewerage privatisation. As a colleague of mine advised, you could tell he was an engineer by his dancing skills at the win celebrations.

  • Barry Walton (F rtd), 59 Primmers Place,, Westbury,, Wilts. BA13 4QZ 


Rethinking flood defence design life criteria

 Just eighteen months ago I enjoyed an idyllic spring evening in Cockermouth on a fascinating tour of the town’s new flood defenses which were built in response to the 2009 devastation of the town. The tour had been organized by the ICE Cumbria Branch. During the tour I learned that the defenses had only been designed for a 1 in 100 year return period (insufficient for 2009); a design criterion dictated by funding.

This week, Cockermouth (not to mention Keswick, Kendal, Carlisle and Appleby) has already experienced flooding in excess of a 1 in 100 year extreme environmental event and the public at large are now questioning the meaning and veracity of these statistical statements.

Funding is allocated in the belief that a safe, engineered solution has been designed that fully meets the functional specification but are engineers really able to provide this? 

As practicing engineers, can we any longer place reliance on current codes in respect of environmental loading? The recent events in Cumbria should serve as yet another reminder to all engineers to seriously re-think how we arrive at these design life criteria.

  • Brian Maguire CEng MICE 

Flood defence deisgn assumptions need revisiting

Thames Barrier

Thames Barrier

Thames Barrier: Opens more regularly than originally anticipated

Return periods, defence heights and public perceptions work against us when designing flood defences. 

When will we learn that extrapolated extreme return periods are inherently unreliable at protecting people, properties and our reputations. Rather than “design events”, we need to consider “consecutive design storms’ and “design winters” and build defences far more robustly.  ”Freeboard” is an admission of our uncertainty and also needs to be revisited.

The Thames Barrier for example was expected to be used two to three times per year but has been used double that since 1982 and 28 times last winter. I would say we should stop being surprised by the weather and re-look at our predictive tools and our overly-confident guidelines.  I’m sure we can do a better job.

  • Name and address witheld





Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.