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Letters: Engineers must give the questions and the answers on fossil fuel

The main point:

Is a thirst for oil killing the plant?

Is a thirst for oil killing the plant?

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is another environmental disaster in the desperate hunt for oil. Man-made disasters are numerous: Torrey Canyon, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Piper Alpha, Exxon Valdez, oil spills in Nigeria, collapses in Chinese and US coal mines, for example.

All fossil fuel exploitation needs engineering: ship science; oil platforms; well drilling; petrochemical plants; nuclear technology; pipelines; mining engineering; power stations and much more.

It seems to me that failures occur because excessive demands are put on these technologies to satisfy our insatiable demand for fuel. How many disasters per year will we accept?

Natural events alone are quite capable of wiping groups of us out, or preventing business as usual: the Icelandic ash cloud in April showed the fragility of flight and the subsequent inadequacy of surface transportation. Where is this hunt for fossil fuels leading?

Nowhere nice, I’m afraid. There are lessons in history: for example, Jared Diamond records that the clans on Easter Island made unsustainable demands of their island which led to their collapse.

For island read world. Is it an exaggeration to think the rest of us are treading in their footsteps?

People need to steer politicians to take the long view. Engineers, please add your voices and work on sustainable technologies. What a pleasure if we all tried to reduce demand for fossil fuels as strongly as politicians try to get elected.

  • Norman Pasley (M),


Crossrail policy was just an element of engineers’ vote

Crossrail is now gathering pace

Crossrail is now gathering pace

I have been a member of ICE since first joining as a student in 1952. For many years the membership outside London had the impression that it was a cosy club for the “Victoria Street Consultants”.

In recent years it has become less parochial and I like the way in which at last it has been lobbying Parliament on relevant matters. I was therefore very disappointed to read in this week’s issue of NCE that you think that the Conservative comments on Crossrail are a reason for voting for other parties.

This project may be of interest to those working in London north of the Thames but for the rest of us it must take its place with many other priorities in the competition for limited money.

Have you forgotten that the Labour administration on coming into office in 1997 axed the planned road construction program only to find later that they had to reinstate it, or that they have totally failed to produce any plan to replace the ageing power stations of the country?

Meanwhile you drive to work on roads which are disintegrating before our eyes because of chronic shortage of maintenance money.

You criticise the Conservatives on one issue, questioning whether the country can afford Crossrail in full. Engineers are I hope more numerate than average and should be able to read the implications of national financial figures, even if the Treasury can’t.

It seems to me that in our present financial straits no spending can be sacrosanct.

  • J T Fulton 3 Martello Park, Poole BH13 7BA


Bumpy ride to pothole solution

I wholeheartedly agree with Ron Warner about the appalling number of potholes requiring attention. I have chosen to drive a small, low emissions (and therefore bumpy) car for my journey to work and so face a daily battle of dodging or bouncing there and back.

However, I would like to correct Ron, as Lennon’s original lyric contained 4,000 holes in Blackburn Lancashire…..and does anybody know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall?

  • Frank Grace (M), frank.

Offshore is off track

The flaws discovered in offshore wind turbine towers (NCE 22 April) draw attention to the special design and construction demands in the offshore environment.

In particular, with a fetch extending great distances into the Atlantic, the proposed wind turbine project in the entrance to the Bristol Channel would be subjected to very hostile conditions.

Moreover, taking into account the depth of water below chart datum, tidal range and storm wave heights, some 60m of construction in testing marine conditions are required extra -over a similar tower constructed on dry land.

Having regard to the design demands of this hostile environment and the considerable extra cost of construction and maintenance the viability of this project is less than obvious.

  • GD Slade (F ret), 6, Penhayes Road, Kenton, Exeter, Devon, EX6 8NR

Rail has to pay its own way

The benefit to cost analysis for High Speed 2 contains tests that show the scheme would not achieve the desired return if the assumed, and extraordinarily high, exponential growth in rail passengers were curtailed in 2026, instead of continuing until 2033, or if the annual growth were reduced by 25%.

Worse still, in line with Department for Transport procedures, so-called “incremental fares” are subtracted from costs leaving the net costs to be compared with the benefits.

That is absurd. After all, the value of the incremental fares depends upon where the economic boundary is arbitrarily drawn. The truth is the DfT procedures muddle economic analysis with financial analysis.

If the two approaches were properly separated, such schemes would fail both tests by wide margins. Even worse, if it is possible to be worse, 40% of the supposed benefits accrue from the later 30 years of a 60 year evaluation period.

Similarly, except for sensitivity tests, with Crossrail.

We conclude that these schemes will be a burden upon the taxpayer for ever and ever, never paying for themselves in financial terms and never returning social benefits sufficient to cover operating and capital costs.

  • Paul Withrington, director, Transport-Watch 12 Redland Drive, Northampton, NN2 8QE

A billion may prove a bargain

There have recently been a number of reports on the plans for HS2, the UK’s next high speed line (NCE 4 March, 18 March, 22 April), but with the suitability of Euston as the London Terminal and the efficiency of connections to HS1 less than ideal and questionable.

If one accepts the base case of a significantly enlarged Euston, surely the best solution would be to divert the Midland services from St Pancras into a bigger Euston, (via an extra tunnel[s]). and have the vacated St Pancras as the terminal for HS2. Problem solved, a complete solution.

I know it might cost £1bn more but a 6% increase for the total solution is a small price to pay above only a partial solution.

  • John Franklin (F), 11 The Ridings, East Horsley, Surrey, KT24 5BN

Polling politics

I had to look twice at the statistics inAlexandra Wynne’s leading article about civil engineers’ political preferencesfollowing Conservative wavering over Crossrail.

Apparently, whilst only 15% of around 100 polled supported the Tories, a whopping 24% had said they would vote Labour.

However, reading this again I saw that the second figure was a proportion of only 60 people who had a firm opinion, which means that each party had the equal support of approximately 15 people (compared to 19 in favour of the Liberal Democrats).

The article went on to state that civil engineers no longer support the Tories, and backed up this claim with statements from a structural engineer and a mechanical engineer!

This is the sort of survey analysis I would expect from a TV commercial for face cream, and I’m appalled that NCE, as a representative of civil engineering, should employ such blatant misrepresentation of data in a leading article!

  • Dave Scott, Arup,

Izmit the new Humber Bridge

Your design impression for the new Izmit Bridge in Turkey (“Aecom and Scott Wilson to work on Turkish mega-bridge”, 6 May) looks remarkably like a photograph of the Humber Bridge in northern England. It’s almost uncanny!

  • Tom Foxton, London SW1, Tom Foxton,

Editor’s note: Apparently in the absence of an indicative design, the artist’s impression was simply based on a blurred image of Humber. Whether the client actually wants the final design to be modelled on Humber is unclear!

Your views & opinion

NCE welcomes letters from readers. We attempt to print as many as possible,which meansletters longer than 200 words are likely to be condensed.

The Editor, NCE,
1st Floor, Greater
London House,
Hampstead Road,
London NW1 7EJ

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