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Letters: Time for the balance on campus to reflect the realities of real life

Time for the balance on campus to reflect the realities of real life

As a second year graduate site engineer it has become obvious that universities seem to gear their civil engineering students towards a career in design and consultancy rather than taking the contracting or construction route.

Although theoretical knowledge of engineering techniques, standards and principles form the backbone of a good engineer − site or office based − is it not time that universities opened students’ eyes to the parallel universe that is setting out and site engineering?

Physics, Maths, Materials, Geotechnics, Technological Sciences, Finite Element Analysis and AutoCAD are all essential to the designers of our bridges, roads and buildings, but what defines the role of the setting out engineer of today?

What modules are in place to teach us about the other option we have when we graduate? What efforts are made to inform us of both career paths so we can make a decision on the rest of our lives?

I’m not saying that the ‘other guys’, by which I mean the site supervisors, the quality controllers, the method statement writers, and the ‘stand out in the rain engineers’ don’t need such a background of engineering knowledge because they do.

It’s their job to interpret construction drawings, specifications and standards and to choose the correct methodologies to make the concept a reality.

However a week’s surveying course and half a module on construction management doesn’t − in my opinion − give our graduate site engineers much of a chance when they first step on site tasked with communicating design drawings to tradesmen, establish lines and levels, and stay on budget.

Maybe it’s time the balance on campus reflected the balance in the big wide world?

  • Paul Higgins, site engineer, Birmingham paul.higgins@costain.com

Bridging the grad debt gap

The problem of engineering students’ university fees and accumulated debt levels are in the news.

The article by Olivia Gagan and Brett Rowden (NCE 23rd June) suggested that some firms in the financial sector can afford to buy off student loans. Surely our industry could too?

Some fifty years ago we had State and County Scholarships which paid our fees subject to a means test. I think the norm then was £350 per year. Because some middle class families were perceived to be disadvantaged by the means test, the Civil Engineering Scholarship Trust was set up and I was lucky enough to get one at the generous rate of £450 per year, which paid my fees and a lot of my maintenance.

If you convert that to today’s money, it would have a spending power of at least £7,000 per year (National Archives) − or depending on the converter used − which would cover most of the proposed £9,000 fees.

Can our industry respond in a similar way today?

  • E J M Hepper (F), Uplands, 61 Queens Road, Alton, Hants. GU34 1JG

A greener way to more capacity

Regarding High Speed 2 (HS2), the problem is not speed but capacity.

The West Coast Main Line will soon run out of capacity and more is needed. The argument is that if a new line is to be built you might as well make it a high speed one, which will bring even more capacity to the route. In addition to this high speed will also bring political kudos.

But is the proposed new railway really the best way of providing more capacity? Why can’t we use the existing corridor of the WCML by adding two more tracks? Certainly the costs would be great but not in comparison with a whole new alignment.

You may say that there are too many curves on the WCML route for a high speed line, but such high speed is not essential: since its recent upgrade, trains on the WCML now travel from Euston to Crewe in 90 minutes or less; this is an average speed of over 100 mph. Is this not sufficient to provide the necessary capacity?

The proposed HS2 route would despoil the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty; it would damage four Wildlife Trust reserves, 10 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and over 50 ancient woodlands; furthermore it would run close to the National Trust property at Hartwell. The abandonment of the proposed HS2 would leave these important areas untouched.

The political argument is weak and transitory; let us make every effort to find a way of providing the needed capacity without causing long-term damage to our valuable environment.

  • Rupert Thorp (M), rupertthorp@supanet.com

Is HS2’s impact too high a price?

I recently had occasion to visit the HS2 mobile exhibition in the area of Old Oak and Hanger.

As a veteran engineer with considerable experience on both rail and road planning and design, I have had a lifelong enthusiasm for railways and accept the desire to provide for increased demand and for higher quality systems.

However, on examining the potential impact of the temporary works necessary in building a complete new road crossing of the southbound arm of Hanger Lane Gyratory, I was struck by the likely sheer scale of the dis-benefits likely to be incurred in achieving this single element of the scheme, and the likelihood of this being duplicated many times throughout the route.

The span and headroom of the new line is necessarily greater than the current lines which requires the headroom to be increased by 2m and the current abutments to be removed with completely new structures.

Considerable disruption of both the North Circular and the A40 major routes each carrying of the order of 4,000 vehicles per hour during peak periods of the day is inevitable. In addition, temporary diversions and reinstatements of the many services in the bridge would also have their significant impact on road traffic over a period of about two years.

What concerns me in particular is that firstly, with the limited information available, the potential impact that I have outlined is unlikely to be obvious to the general public and secondly, that there exists little or no mechanism for individual persons or companies to recover the many hours of lost time and trade that they would incur.

  • John Minelly (M), j.minelly@btinternet.com

Big Society can’t turn the tide

I refer to the article concerning self-funded flood defence schemes (NCE 23 June) which describes the Bucklebury project in West Berkshire as an exemplar for community-led flood defence schemes.

Environment minister Richard Benyon makes a passing acknowledgement that “not every community has the resources that Bucklebury has”.

This is surely the key issue and poses a serious question as to whether the new payment-for-outcomes grant arrangement will lead to a two-tier system where flood defences are only realised in those communities that can afford it.

This seems to be pushing the Big Society idea a little too far!

  • Mark Newlands (AM), North Shields, Tyne & Wear, newlands9@blueyonder.co.uk

Blame forecasts not PFI process

Alexandra Wynne asks whether unreliable forecasts blight PFI as a procurement process (NCE 30 June).

Surely the point is that unreliable forecasts undermine project viability whatever the procurement route - PFI makes explicit what has undoubtedly happened for many years under public procurement.

The lesson we should draw from this is that project risks should be analysed and forecasts should be fit-for-purpose. This requires risk analysis to be central to the project development process, and all forecasts to be reality checked against the known impacts of comparable projects.

These desirable changes are in turn likely to require that accountability is enforced on project sponsors and forecasters. Then risks that are identified can be managed and decision-makers can have increasing confidence in forecasts of project viability.

As it happens PFI/PPP has recently demonstrated considerable improvement in the predictable delivery of major rail projects, but not yet significant improvement in their operational impacts, that too often continue to fundamentally undermine forecast viability.

It would be ironic indeed if these failings alone led to a loss of confidence in such PFI/PPP procurement approaches.

  • Dr Roger J Allport, roger@onslowroad.co.uk

Our skills can restore the flow

NCE reports the ICE as saying that, “the droughts are a timely reminder that we need to urgently reduce demand for water”, (NCE 23 June). What appalling negativity!

Why aren’t the droughts a timely reminder that we need to engage the skills of civil engineers in water storage from winter run off, ground water recharge, water distribution or water reclamation?

  • John Hounslow, 18 Peacock Close, Downend, Fareham, Hants, PO16 8YG

It’s time to be more open about rail safety

I must congratulate Mark Hansford’s piece on accident reporting in the rail industry. Safety will always be a topic that requires discussion (NCE 23 June).

Accident reporting has always attracted a level of fear, whether it be from internal retribution, from the client or from the HSE themselves.

Although one death will always be one death too many, it would be interesting to look at the percentage figures against the UK construction industry as a whole.

Does rail account for less than 2% of the construction industry or are we doing something right? I know that my company has worked hard to keep a low Accident Frequency Rate and it would be good to see more best practise communicated across the industry.

The fear of retribution will always be there, but confusion over the manner of reporting may not help with the rail industry having ‘near misses’, ‘close calls’ and ‘near hits’ to name a few.

Let’s keep it simple and standard across the sector and press forward with improvements.

  • Daniel Jane (M), Daniel.Jane@cleshar.co.uk

Letters to the editor

NCE welcomes letters from readers.

We attempt to print as many as possible, which means letters longer than 200 words are likely to be condensed.

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