Archive for Heathrow Airport

Why civil engineering is not respected

Posted in And thus the Mystery was solved Watson!, Engineering, Irregular Features, Posts that are far longer than I first intended, Tenuous Link of the Day, The Railways, The Underground, Tunnels with tags , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2011 by awickerman

It is a common complaint among engineers that the profession is under-valued, the conversation then normally ranges over the usual topics;  Why are photocopier repair men called engineers? Why don’t we have something like the German Engineer’s Law to protect the name engineer? Why is it that providing the power, gas and water people need is ignored while shagging ex-Big Brother contestants a matter of national concern? In truth these are not good or even original questions, but it does get the conversation going in the pub which is often the main thing.

What never get mentions is the habit of the engineering profession of doing it’s level best to repeatedly bugger up it’s own chances. Consider the ICE London Civil Engineering Awards. Look at some of these past winners;

  • 2010 – Infrastructure Award: King’s Cross St Pancras Underground Station Redevelopment – Phase 2
  • 2009 – Greatest Contribution to London Award: Heathrow Terminal 5A
  • 2008 – Special Award: Wembley Stadium

King’s Cross Phase 2 was a nightmare, this brief history barely covers half the problems but suffice to say horrifically late and well over budget cover it quite well. T5A construction (as opposed to the fit out and staff training) was in fact on time and on budget, but frankly that was irrelevant to the general public perception of the whole project wasn’t it? Nothing really needs saying on Wembley Stadium,  but for those who’ve forgotten it was several years late, over twice the original budget and that the at least one of the multiple court cases over the construction was still going earlier this year.

The pattern you should note is that for most of the population the ICE London branch goes around giving it’s best awards to late, over-priced or otherwise flawed projects. Sure from a purely technical viewpoint they were a triumph for the engineers involved (commercially not so much, particularly not Wembley which the FA got on a fixed price. Genius I tell you), but they are not calculated to make the profession look good, particularly at the showcase event of the year.

Still for those who insist the profession has a higher status I bring good news. This year’s infrastructure award went to the Boris Bikes, a scheme with all the civil engineering content of the average banana, but one that will doubtless garner many fluffy headlines and approving nods from the Guardian….. It’s enough to make a man turn to drink really.

Car Park of Death!

Posted in Engineering, Even Stevie Wonder Saw That Coming, Posts that are far longer than I first intended, Rantings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2011 by awickerman

Via Tim I discovered the Observer’s architect critic has joined the chorus demanding the horror of Preston Bus Station be saved. The main argument appears to be that it ” it embodies the spirit of its 1960s age”, you can argue if that is a good or bad thing visually but in the world of civil engineering, particularly those parts related to large concrete car park type structures, that is reason enough to flatten it. Indeed the man himself admits the reason before attempting to dismiss it;

“The bus station is not alone. It is part of a company of buildings from the 1960s and 70s that fall victim to a vicious compound of circumstances. They are tough, not obviously charming and carry a label no PR expert would have chosen, of “brutalism”. Some have serious technical problems, albeit often exaggerated. Some have serious technical problems, albeit often exaggerated

I will now demonstrate why those serious technical problems have not been exaggerated. We begin in the 1960s when reinforced concrete was a new idea and building huge civic structures in the brutalist style was all the rage. After the architect had produced his swooping lines and grand gestures for the new Preston depot he handed it over to the designers to do the actual hard part of making it work and not fall down, and here is were things went a bit wrong. To be blunt the concrete specifications of the time allowed fairly weak, porous concrete and didn’t require much cover to the reinforcing steel, for those interested in water/cement ratios and porosity of concrete I commend you to this handy government guidance. To add to the fun the design codes of the time were also a bit ‘optimistic’ on concrete strength in shear so most designs weren’t really strong enough and didn’t have the safety margins the designers assumed.

So fast forward a few decades to the 1990s and these chickens begin to roost, car parks start rotting far faster than planned and a few demolition contractors get nasty surprises when the buildings fall apart faster than expected. The big change is probably Pipers Row car park, the top floors of which quite dramatically collapse overnight;

Pipers Row Car Park, pride of Wolverhampton. It got it's own HSE report you know, where do you think I nicked the photo from?

After the HSE investigation a whole generation of material engineers relax knowing their careers will be safe for life, looking after corroding 1960s/70s car parks will be a job for life for anyone who cares to do so. While the collapses generally get avoided these days that doesn’t mean the buildings are OK, it just means they get demolished earlier than expected leaving the owners to try and explain the problem to confused punters looking to park. A good one was Heathrow Terminal 3 car park;

Once a car park stood here, not anymore obviously.

You may be forgiven for thinking this was just part of the ongoing 'permanent rebuild' strategy for Heathrow Airport. However this is the old T3 car park, the one that was conveniently opposite the terminal till it was condemned by a mate of mine due to massive corrosion. So this car park was demolished and a new one built further away. If you've ever been at T3 and wondered why the car park is so far away and why the pick-up/drop off area is so huge, that's why.

This is still a live problem, a quick google throws up a car park in Nottingham that got the old ’emergency closure’ treatment a couple of years back and only last month a Southend car park collapsed during demolition, the top five stories letting go as they had corroded far worse than previously thought. It should now be obvious why Preston Bus Depot has to go, it’s not going to last long in any event so better to take it out while it’s safe before it decides to do the job itself.

I will leave the final word for today to another article in the Guardian, quoting a former Secretary of State for culture when the first listing of the depot was rejected;

“It therefore appears to the secretary of state that the main attractive feature of the design was the result of a miscalculation which led to a poor quality of construction.”

Snow, Concorde and BAA

Posted in And thus the Mystery was solved Watson!, Posts that are far longer than I first intended, Rantings, Your cut-out-and-keep Guide with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2010 by awickerman

So BAA has apparently refused to let untrained (and un-security checked) people amble about it’s airport cleaning up snow.

Can I suggest that this recent event may have concentrated minds at BAA, Continental getting a large fine (and staff getting a suspended sentence) is a timely reminder that very small bits of debris can bring down a plane. If the hordes of random staff bugger up the cleaning, maybe leaving tools on the ground or missing patches of black ice, and a plane subsequently falls out of the sky (or fails to take off) then it doesn’t take much imagination to see BAA in the dock and facing corporate manslaughter.

If I were BAA, running at 99% capacity most of the time and with a queue of airlines looking for landing slots longer than the runway, I’d not risk prison to get the airport open. It’s not like Lufthansa or any of the other whinging airlines are going to relocate to Luton is it?

Just to make it clear though, they are a bunch of inept idiots who really, really shouldn’t be allowed to run a major airport. But then what do you expect from Spaniards?

Heating at Heathrow

Posted in And thus the Mystery was solved Watson!, Engineering, Tenuous Link of the Day, Tunnels with tags , , , , , , on December 21, 2010 by awickerman

As is painfully obvious Heathrow Airport doesn’t have heated runways, but then the excuse goes that back in the 1950s when they built them (and the 1970s when they rebuilt them for jets) how could they have known Global Warming Climate Change would cause so much snow?

It’s a good answer, only slightly undermined by the fact that 1968 saw the construction of the Heathrow Cargo Tunnel which, due to a fairly steep slope at one end, has an under road heating system to keep the approach roads ice free. A system they still keep in operation to this day and one which is working perfectly (Though sadly the surrounding roads are still buggered and the airport is frozen, but that’s not the point right now.)

Worth bearing in mind next time BAA put up a spokesman saying ‘It wasn’t worth money investing in equipment when we didn’t get heavy snow and bad winters’, because clearly the tunnellers they employed disagreed. Sadly the runway chaps, as always, just couldn’t match those high standards.

Ignorance and Risk

Posted in Almost Beyond Words, And thus the Mystery was solved Watson!, Engineering, Tenuous Link of the Day, Tunnels with tags , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2010 by awickerman

This was going to be a point and laugh post about an article on El Reg, the thrust of which was ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ as the author has got his Heathrow Terminals mixed up and has confused two jobs that occurred almost a decade apart, thus making him look like an idiot. OK making him look like an idiot to tunnel engineers but getting away with it for the other 99.9% of the readership. But still the Heathrow collapse had bugger all to do with Terminal 5, primarily because it occurred just outside Terminal 3 in 1994 well over 10 years before Terminal 5 had even started construction. But then he is a Project Manager and so I suppose I shouldn’t expect him to do ‘facts’

I was then pondering a discussion on TfL’s approach to risk based on the interesting quotes in the article from the TfL head of risk management as he was responsible for risk on the Heathrow job. Alas it doesn’t say which Heathrow job, if it was T5 he did a fairly good job on the engineering side (the baggage system which failed was all M&E and they’ve always been useless bastar….) but if he was on the original Heathrow Express in 1994 that makes it very interesting, particularly given what the Heathrow Express collapse did to London Underground’s approach to risk (I really must write the Jubilee Line Extension post one day). Without knowing which I’d be guessing, and if I’m going to do that I might as well guess about something interesting and just make up some exciting stuff.

So as I have to do something, and it should involve risk, I’ll merely note that the biggest punishment on Balfour Beatty wasn’t the fine (£1.3 million, even in the 1990s, wasn’t that much to a big civil engineering contractor) or the damaged reputation with clients it was insurance. Post the collapse (and post the JLE insurance fiasco) Balfour’s couldn’t get insurance for a tunnel job for love nor money for almost a decade. While they did finish out existing contracts they didn’t start a new job in tunnelling till the middle of this decade. You may say that’s a harsh price to pay, but if you were to take a look at the roof and walls of Heathrow Terminal 4 station you may change your mind.

Another Day In The Life of a Tunnel Engineer

Posted in Irregular Features, Tunnels with tags , , , , , , , on April 27, 2010 by awickerman

Today was varied and, as someone recently mentioned they liked the earlier Day in the life post I thought I’d do another.

The morning began with the vexed question ‘How do you stop a 20 tonne mobile crane smashing into a different fixed gantry crane?’ The simple answer to this conundrum is ‘Build a bigger fixed crane so you don’t need the mobile one’, those of you who thought that are henceforth banned from ever working with a certain large water company for being too logical. The correct answer is, of course, crash barriers, or more technically anti-terrorist rated crash bollards, which gives me another excuse for this outstanding link. (And if anyone knows what the name of that song playing at the start is, please put it in the comments as it is really bugging me.)

So after a morning of crash bollards and anti-terrorism standards I spent the afternoon sorting out the Network Rail tunnel inspections for the rail link to a well known London airport. This would have been a fairly standard job were it not for the recent change that now requires a ‘surface walkover’ of the route. While I’m sure this is OK for most rail tunnels in the UK (most rail tunnels being very old and so built in the days when the firm would just buy the entire hill in case something went wrong and they had to resort to an open cut) this is something of a bugger for tunnels in urban areas. In my case this meant working out who one had to talk to in order to wander around a gravel pit, several private farms, the A4 Bath Road, a major hotel complex, the M4, several Terminals and the runways.

This is in fact even harder than you would think as the first questions asked are normally “Why now after all these years? Is something wrong?”, a conversation that never goes well as people refuse to accept things are in fact OK. Given the history of the site you can hardly blame them, but still.

So there you are, a day in the life of a tunnel engineer that only peripherally involved tunnels, a sadly not uncommon occurrence.

And to the visitor who came here searching for “eurythmics sex crime” I have to ask; How many pages of results did you go through to get here? And why? I’m not expecting an answer, I just feel the question should be asked.

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