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Lonely this Christmas?

Every year thousands of engineers give up the traditional turkey dinner and argument with the in-laws to help repair and upgrade Britain's infrastructure. NCE salutes you.

Engineers rarely get the recognition they deserve for their sometimes superhuman efforts to keep Britain's infrastructure working. They often work antisocial hours and in less than comfy conditions.

Every Christmas a few engineers go a good bit further than the rest of the profession, working in rain, sleet, and maybe snow, when the rest of the country is sitting down to roast turkey, Christmas pud and the bust-up in the Queen Vic.

And Network Rail always heads the Yuletide engineering league table. This year will see its most extensive Christmas programme of works ever, with major work taking place between Edinburgh and Newcastle on the East Coast Main Line, between Stockport and Manchester on the West Coast, around Bristol on the Great Western and at Birmingham New Street station.

But it is not just the railwaymen that will at work. London Underground contractors Metronet and Tube Lines will also be busy, as will the many contractors responsible for keeping Britain's trunk roads open and safe. And the Environment Agency will be ever vigilant to protect the UK from flooding.

Name: Steve Toon Job: Senior Incident Response Controller, AMScott Location: Mansfield Christmas Day is like any other for the contractors maintaining Britain's trunk roads - anything can happen, and they have to be ready.

From 8am to 5pm Steve Toon will be working for the Alfred McAlpine/Scott Wilson joint venture AMScott in its Mansfield Incident Control Centre. From here he looks after the A1, M1 and A38 in the East Midlands with four crews.

'My job is to let them know of any incidents, ensure they reach them within the reaction time agreed with the Highways Agency, and see if they need extra help.

'Christmas Day is one of the quietest days in the year for traffic, but that doesn't always mean a quiet day for us, ' he adds. 'Two years ago we were dealing with the aftermath of a fatal accident.' This meant closing the road and sweeping up anything that wasn't taken away by recovery vehicles.

'We work closely with the police, and they will contact us if they need assistance or spot defects in the highway. Last year they spotted damage to safety barriers at four different locations.'

Later in the day attention turns to gritting. 'We have 19 men on standby. Last year they got to watch the Christmas telly at home, but they were called out to clear snow on the M1 on New Year's Eve, ' he says.

Toon hands over the controls at 5pm. 'Hopefully I will still reach my sister's home in time for a few mince pies and a turkey sandwich.'

Name: Kim Farthing Job: Flood warning engineer, Environment Agency Location: Thames Barrier Kim Farthing is actually going to work twice on Christmas Day. The shift pattern associated with being in charge of the most important flood defence structure in the country, the Thames Barrier, means that he works through the night on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

'I will do the 10 till 10 night shift on Christmas Eve, and leave the site at 10 in the morning, I will then return to the barrier at 10pm on Christmas Day and work through the night again, ' he says.

Like many of us, Farthing will be watching TV monitors on Christmas Day but the programmes he watches will be pretty serious. They will tell him whether or not tide levels and weather conditions are going to force him to raise the Thames Barrier.

'If this is the case there will be about 30 people called out to work on Christmas Day, ' he says.

Farthing might be working over Christmas but the shift pattern also gives him blocks of time off in between. 'It means I can go and see my girlfriend in Minnesota for five days before my shifts start on Tuesday (22 December). So I am really getting two Christmases, ' he smiles.

Name: Andrew Jones Job: Network operations manager, Highways Agency Location: West Midlands For the first time ever there will be four two-strong teams of Highways Agency traffic officers patrolling the West Midlands trunk road network on Christmas Day. 'That's guys out on the roads, but they're backed up by support staff based at our HQ in Birmingham, ' says network operations manager Andrew Jones.

Traffic officers are a new presence on the roads. The first unit was formed in the West Midlands earlier this year to take some of the pressure of managing the major roads network off the police.

'We were created to free up the police to focus their attention on criminal behaviour. They were getting distracted by keeping the roads clear of debris and rescuing broken down vehicles, ' Jones explains.

Six more units of traffic officers are expected to be created in other regions across the UK next year.

Units are equipped with large 4x4 vehicles packed with communications and safety equipment, and have legal powers to stop and direct motorists on the motorway - previously the preserve only of the police.

Jones says Christmas Day could throw up anything from collecting shredded tyres from the hard shoulder, through advising the drivers of stranded vehicles how to stay safe while waiting for arrival of a recovery truck, to helping the police handle a major incident. This can involve clearing access routes of backed up traffic and planning diversion routes.

'We haven't worked a Christmas before, ' says Jones. 'But we are expecting Christmas Day itself to be fairly quiet.' The general trend is for increases in drink-drive accidents in the run-up to Christmas. And there is a massive surge of traffic on the roads on Boxing Day.

If Christmas turns out to be white, or even just icy, the new traffic officers can expect to be busy.

Name: Chris Newton Job: Project engineer, Network Rail Location: Bristol Parkway Chris Newton will be spending the seven days from Christmas Day to New Year's Day at work, helping renew a double junction and points at Bristol Parkway. For him, it is just part of the job.

'I've been in the industry for 30 years and it's always been this way. If people didn't give up their time at this time of year jobs like this wouldn't get done. It's as simple as that, ' he says.

And for Newton it is about more than just the money. 'The payments are quite generous and there are those who like that. But for me it's a way of life and if the premiums were not the same I would turn out anyway.'

His conscience is eased by the fact that he is not leaving family home alone. 'My partner is a care officer and she invariably ends up working over Christmas herself.

So we're both slaves to the regime.

'I'm sure she wouldn't be quite so understanding if she wasn't, ' he adds.

Newton will be on site every day of the possession, either doing his job or covering shifts for alliance partner Carillion. His biggest worry will be whether everyone turns up. 'It's one of the biggest risks and has happened in the past. If some staff don't show it's not like a usual weekend where you can call in back-ups.'

He is confident, though, that the 'A team' will do the job proud.

Which leaves just one other severe risk - the weather. 'We won't be dreaming of a white Christmas on this job. We'd like to be able to see what we're doing, ' he says.

Name: Mike Dunham Job: Manager of construction, Network Rail Location: West Coast Route Modernisation Mike Dunham will be up bright and early on Christmas day, but not to see what Santa may have brought.

When he leaps out of bed before 5am it will be for one thing - to oversee the renewal of switches and crossing at Slade Lane junction.

'My day will start at 5am when I start my journey to the work site, and I should arrive to begin work at 7am. I should finish at 7pm with another two hours travelling to get home, ' he says.

But he does not set out with dread. 'Last Christmas I worked and the atmosphere was very professional. A select force is out on Christmas day and everyone is determined to get the job done on time. Everyone is generally very cheerful as we've all volunteered to work, ' he adds.

Dunham's motivation to work is a selfless act. 'I actually choose to work because it gives others the opportunity to enjoy Christmas day. I'm American and I have already celebrated Thanksgiving at home in the USA with my family, so I don't feel I'm missing out.'

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