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Walk tall

Working lives - Martyn Wilson explains how trudging miles of England's rail track can bring career satisfaction.

Owen Williams Railways project manager Martyn Wilson has a theory as to why geotechnics is considered the Cinderella of civil engineering.

'In general, civils graduates want to design bridges. The soil mechanics part is seen as a necessary evil, ' he says. 'As a geotechnical engineer, your work occurs right at the start, but you are not involved again unless something goes wrong.' But Wilson feels his current role, carrying out earthworks assessments on the London North Eastern Rail (LNER) line fills the gap between crucial site investigation work and the excitement and satisfaction of bringing a project to completion.

'This work will play a role in the development of the country and I, for one, would like to be part of that, ' he says.

The four year contract awarded to consultant Owen Williams Railways in 2004 requires 288km of track to be inspected this year alone. If there is a catch, it is that the only way to carry out the necessary visual inspections is to physically walk the track.

'It's not a walk in the park, ' says Wilson. 'We are walking by a live, high speed rail corridor.' In addition, the 'earthworks examination season' falls between November and March when vegetation has died back, making examinations easier.

'Unfortunately it means we have to go out in the short days and get rained on, ' Wilson says, now back in the office for the summer.

Earthworks xaminations started when Railtrack went into liquidation.

'The receivers had a difficult time determining its assets and liabilities. They knew roughly how many miles of track there were, but not how much was flat ground, embankments and cuttings, which have cost implications in terms of maintenance.' Estimates from initial desk studies put the number of earthworks features along the 320km of LNER track at 4,000.

But two years later this figure had tripled and by the end of 2003 had soared to 17,000.

Wilson started working on the LNER line in 2001 for URS Corp.

'I was responsible for project managing emergency works.

I would be on 24 hour call to deal with anything from bulging embankments to places where flash floods had washed cuttings over the rails. I would give a geotechnical view on safety and decide whether they could reopen the line to trains.' Wilson enjoys the quick turn around of work and the satisfaction of getting the tracks running properly. 'We can have a track which needs quite major works running properly within 100 hours. It makes up for trudging along in the rain, ' he says.

Wilson came to geotechnical engineering from a geology background when the North Sea oil industry started shrinking. 'I picked up NCE and saw growth in the construction industry and the role geo-engineering could play in it.' Wilson decided to take a masters in engineering geology at Leeds University and joined contractor Norwest Holst as a graduate engineering geologist working on site investigations while he completed his dissertation. The contractor had Wilson running around the country working on a rash of new bypasses.

'Working on a large number of different sites I learned to recognise different parts of the country through the different soil conditions, ' he says.

Wilson worked his way up to site agent, running small sites with a team of geologists and civil engineers. A spell of agency work in contracting was followed by Wilson's first taste of consultancy work with AIG Consultants in 1997.

Wilson says his move from contracting to consultancy is unusual in the geotechnical sector. His work walking the rail lines marries skills acquired in both fields pretty well, he feels.

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