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Letters: Network Rail fails to learn from the past

2014 rail disruption

Christmas 2014: Human impact of overrunning possession work

As an engineer and former railway employee responsible for coordinating the annual national rail closure plan I read with increasing frustration the Office of Rail Regulation’s (ORR) conclusions following the King’s Cross over-run last Christmas (NCE 19 February).

I would draw your attention to the conclusions following the Leeds over-run in 2001 and also Rugby in 2007. These conclusions are almost identical to King’s Cross. In short, Network Rail engineers have learned nothing over the previous 15 years.

It was a continual source of frustration to me that project managers and engineers had no formal relationship with their customers (the train and freight operators).

Add to this the Network Rail strap line of “engineering excellence for Britain’s railways” and one can see why many engineers see their role in pure engineering terms.

Regrettably, this view existed at a senior level and any attempt to challenge was rebuffed. All project managers and engineers should, as part of their annual objectives, be made to travel on a rail replacement bus service for at least 30 minutes.

  • Neil Raw (M), Oriel Grove, York YO30 6PA

One could not really disagree with the Office of Rail Regulations’ (ORR) nine recommendations following its review of the Christmas chaos on the rail network (NCE 19 February). As far as they go, the recommendations appear to be practical, feasible and by and large, just plain common sense. However, why couldn’t the ORR have been more proactive and ensured that these measures were in place when conducting each of its five-yearly periodic reviews prior to publishing its determinations for Network Rail’s funding?

While Network Rail is endeavouring to achieve a “predict and prevent” approach to its work, the ORR appears to be happier with the stable door and bolting horse approach. At least this is a step up from the “fail and fine” philosophy favoured previously. Maybe the penny has now dropped that it is the taxpayer who ultimately pays the penalty, not Network Rail?

  • Nicola Philipps,

While the Office of the Rail Regulator’s recommendation for Network Rail to ensure there are adequate contingency plans for its possession working is prudent, having back-up in place does not come without its own risks which need to be managed.

From university assignments to real project work, if there’s a deadline which must be met at all costs, you’re psychologically programmed to meet it; but if a known back-up plan exists, there’s a natural tendency to allow things to slip. So will the respectable 2% possession overruns now start veering towards 5%?

  • Scott Sumner,


Clarification of ICE qualification procedures

Frank Marples states that the ICE’s qualification procedures are contrary to Engineering Council regulations and implies that candidates with cognate but non-civil engineering degrees are able to become chartered engineers without demonstrating knowledge and understanding of engineering principles (NCE 19 February).

Neither assertion is true; the ICE’s standards are robust and independently audited. Marples raised this question at ICE Council in April 2014 and the input papers to the debate included written confirmation from the ­Engineering Council that the ICE is compliant with its licence, a position ICE Council duly accepted.

In the same issue of NCE, a letter from Malcolm Eddleston describes how both geology and civil engineering graduates can converge on careers in ­geotechnical ­engineering, despite their different starting points. He goes on to suggest ways to attract and develop new engineering professionals in response to worsening skills shortages.

His examples show clearly why we should encourage cognate degree holders who are able and willing to develop to the high standards the ICE demands of its professionally qualified engineers.

Our industry needs them and is richer for embracing people with a broad range of skills and experience.

  • Adrian Coy (F), ICE Vice President for Membership Institution of Civil Engineers, 1 Great George Street, London SW1P 3AA


HS2 displays terminally bad design

I was very disappointed to see in your issue of 12 February a depressing lack of the imagination that was so prevalent in the Victorian age. Your story on High Speed 2 is illustrated with a picture showing a modest terminus serving no other purpose than a terminus. When the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway was first planned, the depot was designed similarly, as a simple low-level structure with a north-light roof.

In the event, this 10ha site now has 25,000 people living in high-rise blocks over the top. A rail terminus is a classic place to put multi-use buildings; not to do so is such a waste of space and a wasted opportunity. Land area in London is extremely valuable, and land use should be maximised.

There is a similar lack of imagination around the Harbury Tunnel. The approach to this tunnel has suffered landslips for years, and the article was about how “they” are proposing to prevent more slips. Surely, the simple answer is to create a cut-and-cover tunnel, such that each side of the cutting is supported by infill between -creating valuable useable space over the top.

  • Robin Clay (M), Thornhill Farmhouse, Okeford Fitzpaine, Blandford Forum, Dorset DT11 0RQ


Lessons in doctoring the figures

While I agree to some extent with the sentiment of Tony Putsman’s letter (NCE 19 February) regarding feminism, I’m afraid the example he uses is way behind the times.

The 80% figure for male senior gynaecologists might have been accurate in the late 1990s, but has been dropping steadily and is currently closer to 50% (although this of course depends on the definition of “senior”).

More significantly, if one looks at current trainee intake in this specialism around 90% are in fact female (my wife being one of them).

  • Richard Hein (M)


Equality of the sexes is plain nonsense

Your definition of a feminist as being “an advocate of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes” is just plain wrong. The sexes are not equal. They have many similarities, many things in common, but also many differences. Even one difference is enough to make them different/unequal. They may be said to be complementary, but they are quite simply not equal.

Since, therefore, the ground on which your definition is based is wrong, your whole argument is erroneous.

Furthermore, of all the professions, civil engineering, with its close links to construction and despite changes wrought by the introduction of mechanisation, computerisation and IT, is among the least suited to women.

You do protest too much.

  • Richard Power
  • Editor’s note: Sorry if you disagree Richard, but it is not my definition, but that of the Oxford English Dictionary. And I continue to fully support the concept, and urge all in our industry to do likewise.

Publish and be proud of gender achievements

NCE has been showing a (commendable) interest in the gender balance among consultant civil engineering firms.
Firms who take pride in their achievements in this area, and see them published in your pages, are very likely to redouble their efforts.
Could I suggest that you extend your interest to the gender balance of field operatives also - the sharp end of our industry. The impact of health and safety legislation and the development of mini-plant have, to a large extent, eliminated the need for brute strength on site, and there seems to be no reason not to seek to have a measure of gender balance in this area.

  • John Hounslow (F), 18 Peacock Close, Downend, Fareham PO16 8YG


Tragic reality about danger of potholes

Some years ago the bright, 17 year old, son of a neighbour was cycling, wearing his helmet, along a local road. He hit a pothole. He fell off his bike, landed on his head, broke his neck, and died instantly. This could happen to your family. Potholes are lethal.

  • Phillip Randle (M retd) 18 Wingfield, Bodmin, Cornwall PL31 2EZ


Papering over cracks in new technology

Your story “Digital device use on building sites increasing” (NCE 5 February) brought to mind an incident on site a few years ago during the installation of complex foundations for some industrial plant.

The main contractor had subcontracted the steel fixing to a specialist sending all the drawings to him by email. The time came for me to check the reinforcement. I duly turned up with a copy of the drawing in hand. With one or two very minor adjustments they had done a good job.

During the course of our discussion he got out his iPhone to show me the drawings on screen, saying that this was all he had to enable him to fix the reinforcement. He proceeded to tell me that no-one had a printer capable of printing greater than A3. I quickly handed over my A1 print for which he was ecstatically grateful. Technology is all very well but you can’t beat a paper copy of the drawing. Or can you?

  • Philip Matthews (M)

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