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Sustaining skills

BECHTEL'S DEPARTURE from the massive West Rail project in Hong Kong should raise eyebrows among civil engineers and project planners in the UK. It is after all the same US giant that has just been brought in by London Underground to rein in the Jubilee Line Extension - the biggest civil engineering project in Europe.

Is there something that Bechtel has promised LU that the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation clearly no longer wants? Or is LU paying a huge consultancy fee, the like of which KCRC refused to accept?

The answer is perhaps more simple. While there was clearly the desire by state-owned KCRC to avoid paying the sort of fees that Bechtel charge for its highly specialised services, KCRC's decision to go it alone was perhaps more driven by the prospect of a large number of new projects on the horizon. With such a future mapped out, it is not hard to see that unnecessary fees will be avoided by building up its own project management expertise.

This might have happened here had London Underground had a similar prospect of schemes to follow the JLE. But with no CrossRail, no Chelsea Hackney link and no other major new build project remotely in the pipeline, it was clear from the very start of the JLE project that the team was in for the short haul. Get in, do the job, make some cash and move on. Skills are lost, knowledge and experience diluted. Missed deadlines and bust budgets soon follow.

The difference in morale and commitment within KCRC's West Rail staff compared to that of even the original JLE team must be immense. KCRC it is just about to start building a complex pounds4.9bn project and it has the confidence to pass over one of the world's most respected consultants. What difference the excitement of a decade of work makes.

JLE project manager Hugh Doherty always made it clear during the last few years that the lack of a project to follow JLE was having a significant effect on his ability to keep key team members on board. A one year contract is no incentive towards project loyalty.

To comment on the rights and wrongs of an American firm and its ability to 'save' the UK's premier civil engineering project misses the point. A more forward thinking approach by Government to planning the nation's infrastructure - with a view to sustaining the necessary skills in the industry - would make the excellent fire fighting skills of firms like Bechtel unnecessary.

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