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Tracey's blog: building London's mind-boggling super-sewer

I wonder who really loves a civil engineer while his groundbreaking work is actually underway?

Tracey Logan is producer and presenter of BBC Radio 4's Cleansing the Thames

When I first met Steve Walker, Thames Water's chief engineer and the man who will build London's new super-sewer, the Thames Tideway Tunnel, he recalled a recent exchange with an angry resident in Hammersmith.

It had to do with the (as yet unconfirmed) location of a major construction site at the Tunnel's western terminus and its impact on her neighbourhood. "She was transmitting but not receiving," he said with a hint of resignation. I wondered whether Joseph Bazalgette had faced similar onslaughts in the 19th century when he built his iconic and life-saving sewers for London? But of course he did – and much worse, too.

We were discussing Steve Walker's contribution to my Radio 4 series "Cleansing the Thames" on the super-sewer's construction, and potential public opposition to the project between now and its completion in 2020. As he spoke I wondered who really loves a civil engineer while his groundbreaking work is actually underway? Well, of course, I do… but then I'm in the market for tales of awe-inspiring projects, great sounds and colourful speakers – all of which the world of civil engineering boasts in spades.

For many of my listeners, building a conservatory or loft extension qualifies as a mega-project. So listening to Steve Walker talk about his plans for the deepest tunnel ever built under London – or Chris Binnie who, as Chairman of the Thames Tideway Strategic Group, was one of the tunnel's chief architects – was enthralling.

The former Environment Minister Ian Pearson told me, after announcing plans for the super-sewer in March, that he found the scale of this project "mind-boggling". And it sure is big - 35km long, 80m below the Thames at its deepest (that's over 20 storeys down) and wide enough to drive a double-decker bus through.

And later in the year, just as the St Pancras Channel Tunnel link was completed, Phil Woollas - the new Minister for Climate Change and the Environment – said he felt humbled to have been asked to oversee the Thames Tideway Tunnel project.

Of course not everyone feels the same way and objections are already coming from representatives of the 11 million Thames Water-bill payers who must pay for the Thames Tideway Tunnel and endure its construction for the best part of a decade. Ofwat, the water regulator, will keep a close eye on the project on their behalf. Steve Walker's encounter with that angry Hammersmith resident may be just a taste of things to come.

For making a big mark on the landscape must inevitably cause public anxiety and engineering projects of any scale will always, I'm told, encounter unforeseen – often costly problems. But fixing them with ingenuity, skill and consideration – is what makes a truly great engineer. And being able to tell a great story about it afterwards is what makes the kind of heroic figure I love listening to on the radio.

The Environment Minister told me he thought there should be more programmes about engineering on the radio and I agree. You might think that TV would be a better medium but in my view the pictures really are better on the radio. Maybe that's because the sounds of construction on location get all mixed up with the engineer's tales of derring-do and the vision of what is to be achieved, producing a sense of magnificence and wonder in the mind's eye.

Not enough radio programme-makers choose to work with civil engineers for fear they'll be dull speakers. In my view that's a misguided stereotype, perhaps based on too many frustrating encounters with IT support. Or is it the name that's off-putting? "Civil" is a word usually associated with manners and a polite – even understated - approach. That may be one of the secrets of an engineer's personal charm and why they come across well on the radio. But as a description of what you do for a living? Isn't something braver and wilder what's called for?

Tracey Logan is producing and presenting BBC Radio 4's Cleansing the Thames programme, to be broadcast in two parts at 11am on 24 and 31 October.

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