Thursday 21 May 2015

What Would Sir Joseph Make Of It All?

Sadly, I don't think people could name a living civil engineer, although they might be able to name a dead one. 

Thorley Lane Bridge on the M56 - yes, bridges don't magically
appear at the click of the fingers. Image from Highways Magazine.
A regular topic of conversation in the dusty halls of the engineering institutions is how can we raise the profile of engineers in the collective mind of the public as well as how we might go about engaging with the decision makers who ultimately decide what is going to be built. I think our problem is that most of the time, we are too busy with the day job to think about promoting what we do and when something does become newsworthy, it is often because it has gone wrong. Think about the chaos earlier at the start of the year when overrunning works brought London Bridge to a standstill, or a whole 90 minutes of delays on the M5 at Bromsgrove due to a weekend closure for bridge works.

This week, we have had the Twitterati laying to CityConnect about the Leeds-Bradford Cycle Superhighway which has now made the front cover of the local paper, the Telegraph & Argus. Now of course, I have made some of my armchair pontifications about the scheme, but I am not blogging about the scheme, just that people have only become interested because of a problem and of course, the engineers are the scapegoats - not the sort of profile we want and no way for us to try and show the public what we can do.

One of the big problems we face is that we are rarely fully in control of the schemes we deliver with politicians and accountants calling the shots and our vision getting watered down by the corporate system and with guidance being applied as standards by those who don't understand what they are doing. Whether it is stupidly raising public expectations that we will be able to complete that railway work in 48 hour line closure at Christmas when we need a week, or where we make contractors keep traffic lanes open as not to inconvenience drivers when we could do a quicker and better job with a road closure or where a pure vision for a cycling scheme has us designing with one arm up our back because we cannot possible shift capacity from motors to active transport.

When I expand my question to allow people to name dead civil engineers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel will often spring to mind, although the fact that he was a workaholic who had many people killed on his projects seems to have faded from rose-tinted view of history. He was a great man of course, but the success of his projects did vary over his relatively short career and yes, he was often criticised in the press at the time. Of course, the projects he built were very much his projects and this is why he is remembered.

Sir Joseph Bazalgette. Image by Lock & Whitfield,
National Portrait Gallery (Creative Commons Licence)
My own civil engineering hero is the lesser know Sir Joseph Bazalgette, another workaholic and contemporary of Brunel, ended up building The Embankment in London. The project was actually a grand scale sewer scheme designed to intercept the sewers of London where they tipped into the Thames, instead sending the waste further downstream to be discharged in an area with no people at the time. Bazalgette had vision on what the scheme should do and it took him a few attempts to convince the powers that be that it should be built (it was horredously expensive). Actually, the Great Stink on 1858 finally convinced Parliament that something should be done as much as anything Bazalgette did.

I wonder what Sir Joseph would make of life in 2015, after all, we are still using the sewers under The Embankment and Transport for London will be repurposing some of the space he created for cycling with the East-West Cycle Superhighway and I wonder what he would make of how decisions are made? I am not in my business to be rich or famous, but I want to improve our built environment and I think that most of my peers have exactly the same motivation. But I do think we need to come out of our shells more and tell the public what we do and why we do it. 

For the continued slating of railway engineering works, I think the engineers need to be telling people how complex the work is, how we are trying to gear up a whole supply chain to operate when everything is closed on a bank holiday and yes, expose the unrealistic deadlines they are given. For the highway maintenance people, when the Lead Member publicly criticises you on how long it takes to get a damaged road opened after a multiple pile up, politely explain that if he his administration had properly funded you, then you could have provided a better service. Designers, when your cycling scheme is systematically dissected on Twitter, perhaps it is time to become transparent and explain the parameters within which you have been forced to work.

Actually, the advice in the last paragraph probably doesn't do much for one's current or future career prospects and this is why it is vital that our engineering institutions pick up on some of this criticism and give the counter arguments. Of course, we should also admit when we have got it wrong and I know this is difficult, especially if it is unpalatable to those we are working for. It is also important to keep our vision and to record it because when we have our own Great Stink, we need to justify our position. Perhaps then, the public will realise that they undervalue us and actually, all the great people are civil engineers and well as civil engineers being great people. But, I am bound to say that aren't I?


  1. Hear, hear!
    As someone who works for a consultant - those modern-day vampires sucking every last penny from the public purse - and sees it from the outside, it amazes me the crap Local Authority engineers in particular put up with and yet still keep quiet about who is really to blame, presumably, as you say, out of fear for their jobs. Surely that in itself doesn't foster a good working environment?

    Some of the stuff you lot seem happy to put up with in complete silence - I'd be out after a week - led away by police under a blanket having gone postal, "...ooh, but he was always so quiet and polite, said 'good morning' every day...".

    Andy R

    1. Michael Douglas, Falling Down!

      I think it is for all of us to push the change. As an evil consultant you will know that many client briefs are half-arsed and part of the change needs to come from challenging the briefs. It could be as simple as "have you thought about?" type questions - mind you this is hard as well if you are dealing with a dinosaur!

  2. OK, I can understand, if not like, a designer or councillor etc demanding this and that and an engineer having to compromise - put in a toucan, create some shared use, even make bike riders give way at side junctions use , and to a certain extent, have "parameters within which you are forced to work". But in the Bradford case, what's with the "walls of Byzantium" kerbing (my impetus for sticking in my 2p worth - and in for a penny...)? And here:

    Nice bit of tarmacking, and lovely white paint, but is someone who wants to cycle straight on but on red supposed to be blocking the left filter lane, or what? And then aim at the guard wall before swerving right?

    And here:

    excellent structural works done on the bridge, but why end the cycle lane where it does,why install a carriage-way narrowing kerb then put the dropped kerb where is, why not put an arrow directing riders on to the shared use on the bridge and why not put any signs up. Especially since it used to be like this: - the lane-footway transition is a bit sharp, but all the elements are there.

    And on and on it goes. All over the country. Where does stuff like that come from?

    In your case though, think of it as complaining, not at you, but to you.

    1. Nice brickwork - looks like a "pretty" version of guardrail; and with a two stage crossing of the side road for pedestrians, nice. The left turn lane means that yes, at certain times, anyone cycling ahead will block left-turners - it is ill thought out and really is an example of bolting on cycling infrastructure to layouts designed for car capacity; and the design comes from out of date guidance and from people who don't cycle or have no concept of cycling, much less politicians who cannot recognise it for the the awful layout it is.

      The bridge example used to be a kind of helpful bodge, but the real issue is making people cycle at the edge of a dual carriageway in the first place. The other telling point is the old design was either done by someone who cycles or at least was reviewed with a half-cycling eye.

      But I stand by my point, the layouts up and down the country have not had any vision from a cycling (and a walking point of view) and would not have been designed from the top in any case. Only my profession can do something about its reputation and part of the answer is to start saying that layouts like this are no longer acceptable.

      Complain at me and with me as much as you want!

    2. Having to take the flak for poor decisions is not the job of an engineer. Indeed, it would be unprofessional for a [chartered] engineer to ignore or fail to resolve inconsistent/ conflicting requirements. The reason why engineers arguably have a better reputation elsewhere is that outside the Anglo-Saxon countries engineering is a vocation strictly regulated by its guilds and/ or the law. They certainly don't allow themselves to be the patsies for `decision makers' (usually arts graduates, qualified to do nothing of any worth) or refer to themselves merely as an `industry'. Whether a similar culture could be successfully introduced into a Thatcherite UK is another matter. Especially when most people are part of the conspiracy to retain the wall of silence.

      Ranty: next time you have an accountant or other middle management type trying to tell you how to do your job---just remember that nobody could name a dead accountant or middle manager, never mind a living one! Yes, councillors are just low-grade middle managers, albeit without the responsibility. When cuts are made in the public or private sector, these same accountants and middle management ought to be the most obvious source of slack and candidates for the cull... If you don't believe me, try letting one of them use your CAD software next time they start spewing their ill-informed opinions and pretending to understand what you do.

      TL&DR; UK highway engineers are treated as expendable payroll units because they behave like mercenaries!

    3. I do post with a certain amount of tongue-cheekery of course, but yes, I do feel like an expendable payroll unit (great term) half the time. Thank goodness for the other half the time when I get a chance to do engineering rather than finance, HR and social work ;)