Archive for Engineering

GARL or Who Makes up These Contracts?

Posted in Engineering, Government, Politics, Transport with tags , , , on September 30, 2009 by pieman70

Mock up

Well, I’ve not talked about politics and transport for a while, and here is a post which kind of combines both.

Just recently the SNP has announced its new budget; something that has caused much consternation was the cancellation of the Glasgow Airport Rail Link.

Now on the political side, the SNP hasn’t exactly done itself any favours.  They must have known that this would be unpopular.  The Greens are already complaining that a public transport initiative was cut while road building continues and Labour are claiming that the SNP are anti-Glasgow.  Now, I will come to the reasons that the project is claimed to have been cancelled in a minute or so.  First I’ll go over how this could have been better handled.

The SNP should have known this would be an unpopular decision, and so I would have suggested a good offence with this one.  I still expect to hear is that Westminster has cut the Scottish budget, and so this is their fault, but I think they already know that argument has incredibly limited mileage, regardless of how much the Westminster labour government does seem to want to show up the SNP. (Still sore about loosing the Scottish parliament as their own rubber stamp service I guess) A good direction would have been to blame the Edinburgh trams, as they tried to shut down that white elephant but were blocked, and the project has now spiralled out of control, they could have argued that there would have been plenty of money to pay for GARL if the Edinburgh tram project could have been canned.

The actual reason given, although the SNP haven’t really been playing it to its full, a pretty poor move politically, is that the costs were becoming significantly greater than initially stated.  This is actually an intriguing angle.  If they played it as stopping another Scottish Parliament or Edinburgh tram wild overspend before it started, they may get some more understanding and support on the decision, after all, they would be wildly slated if the project ran wild on their watch.

What actually confuses me is this, how do these projects run wild?

I’m an engineer, and while studying my HNC we covered contracts in a little detail, much has sadly vacated my empty head, but the basic Tendering process and contract rules have not.  The basic gist is this.  Someone wants a big project undertaken, say a building built.  The client will usually provide a specification, plus surveys and all the information a contractor needs to make an estimate.  The contractors will then make up a document explaining how they would conduct the project, what timescale it would be completed in and how much it would cost.  The contract types generally hold bonuses for early completion, and also some bonuses for coming in under budget.  Similarly there are penalties for running late, and generally any cost over-runs must be covered by the contractor.  This works because it keeps both sides honest (It’s actually more complicated with clauses for various possibilities of delay but this simple explanation should fit)

However for some reason Government projects seem to work differently.  For these if a contractor runs over time or over budget, the Government covers the shortfall, and I’ve no idea why.  Why should costs spiral for a tender when a contract has been agreed.  If we are farming big projects out to private companies, particularly high profile ones such as Trams or a Parliament building, then we should basically say “Well you said you could do it for amount X, that’s what we gave you, now we want our building to spec, if you’ve under bid, that’s your problem.”

Now back to the SNP, if they could commission some works, and have them come in on budget and on time, they could build a reputation for better practice on bug projects.  No spiralling costs with this government.  Sadly, from how it’s been played so far, this may be the breaking of them.


In the Thrall of the Designer

Posted in Engineering with tags on January 30, 2009 by pieman70

It is an old rant really, Engineers hate Designers because we want to build every building an easily calculated square and they want to make the world beautiful, or to put it from the engineers point of view, we want to make a building that stands up on its own, that people can get in and out of, and the job of the designer is to then make it look pretty.

Designers are important, they work on aesthetics and often more importantly ergonomics. While I will bring up some of the most stunningly beautiful structures and machines in the world, Concorde, Any suspension bridge, and point out that these are purely form from function, in many occasions a designers input is important. However, more and more I see Function following form rather than the other way round. There are many examples, but the two I’ll focus on are general car design and Glasgow’s town centre.

Many cars these days suffer the same problem, particularly luxury and sports cars, and that is a big fat generic looking boot. I wonder why the Sportier Jag’s all have the back of a Ford Mondeo. Designers and reviewers will bemoan Golf, a sport I have no love for, for this, as the design spec calls for a boot to hold tow sets of golf clubs. Now forgive my ignorance, but isn’t the designer’s job to make that look good, what next “Why must this car have doors, your artless insistence on getting people in and out of the car will ruin the lines.” Inf act designers have had it too easy, in days gone by, engineers would design the general layout of all the mechanical bits and the designers had various boxes to play around with to fit a certain amount of space for people and luggage into the design, somehow no they have this idea that unless we remove functional car parts they can’t design something pretty. I call tosh and reach, through my non-arts student chip, (They got the easy course and women, how many girls at uni want to talk to an Engineer?) that they are stroppy artists, that they would draw a car and tell an engineer to make it real, as if we were magicians who can cram any parts into any space. I’d love to see a car manufacturer tell their designer to try again next time a big square boot is left where something far more exciting should be. Come on designer, Design.

More worrying is Glasgow city centre. Now it looks good, re-paved, good lighting and some nice work done with glass. However, some simple engineering factors clearly weren’t taken into account, principally traction. Glasgow is a damp city, it rains. It rains A lot. The designer who came up with the new city centre streets decided that some dynamic looking metal strips along some steps would look great, and it does, but first spot of rain and it becomes the perfect place to loose your grip and I’m amazed there haven’t been more serious falls. The same guy decided that the tactile surface at the pedestrian lights near Central Station were dull, and that instead of a precast slab, metal studs would look better, and they do. Of course like the metal strip they make for treacherous underfoot conditions when wet. In fact, my main issue is that Glasgow’s standard weather has not been considered. Walk down Buchanan street on a wet day, its slippy as hell, the combination of water and traffic film seems to make whatever they paved the street in like an Ice Rink. Now Engineers have chart upon chart about what materials are suitable for what in what part of the country. I can only assume this was ignored in favour of “But it looks so good”

So, if engineers are so great, why don’t people listen to them. Well, its because we’re technical. When talking to MPs, managers etc, we’re talking to laymen, and we’re talking technical, even if we try and dumb it down. Ask any technical person, be it scientist, software engineer or site foreman, and having a layperson in charge is a pain, they are either threatened that a lack of understanding of technical details belittles them or they see the world in “You fix problems, not me” way. They like designers, they tell them what they want to hear, like “The Scottish Parliament building will be a timeless design that will last through the ages” of course its already looking dated.

Designers have their place, but at the moment it feels like the tail is wagging the dog and we are in the Thrall to highly paid arts students who have little in common with the designers who made the term better by design.

The Edinburgh Tram Farce

Posted in Engineering, Transport with tags , on January 22, 2009 by pieman70

Well, once again I, a resident of near Glasgow can have a mild chortle about the Edinburgh Tram project. Already suffering difficulties of public disinterest, anger from store owners and ignoring the fact that trams are really an obsolete technology, there have been several new events that will most likely mark this project as a gold standard to measure council waste and corruption.

Digging Up the Road

There were complaints from shop owners along the route that business was being lost due to tram works. Now any engineer will tell you one of the most important factors of working in a densely packed urban area is to minimise disruption. However the group of cowboys who paid the best kickbacks clearly haven’t considered this. There are reports of holes being dug for the moving or underground services, tarmacked over then dug up again in order to lay track (Also a really funny story about a hole in the road getting its 1 year birthday party thrown which ended in a minor scuffle but I digress)

When planning work there are several useful exercises to go through, Charts such as bar charts, activity on the arrow and activity on the node diagrams allow you to make the best use of your time. They show areas where, for example you will have the hole dug anyway. The only way I can envisage this happening is if the guy doing the diagram was slightly worse at it than I am.

Attached to this is the digging up of Princes street, which will see arguably the busiest street in Edinburgh effectively closed for over 9 months, which will include the festival period. Somehow at the planning stage no-one saw this as a problem.


One of the mind boggling elements that again brings into question the entire team behind the running of this project was the war memorial outside Haymarket station. People were understandably upset to discover that it was to be removed to run the tramlines through. Understandably because I would assume, quite foolishly in my naivety, that whoever surveyed the route would see a war memorial and work around it, rather than just decide to flatten it.

What I wonder about these things is why no-one brought this up in the planning stage. Why no-one looked at haymarket and said “Where’s the war memorial?” or looked at the schedule and said “You’re not blocking off princes street during the festival are you, oh for how long, nope, work a different way around it,” or indeed “Project not Viable, seek alternatives” Of course, Edinburgh has been setting itself up as having some really stupid transport ideas. The guided bus routes still confuse me, exactly what are they for, as far as I see they provide all the disadvantages of bus travel with all the disadvantages of a railway. In fact my inner cynic makes me think that they were a stopgap for a tram system as a far more useful installation would have been a road with a “No entry except Buses” sign at either end. No special buses, no blocking the thing off if a bus breaks down.

On a positive note, even if the new trams do not cause the traffic chaos that similar systems in Melbourne cause, it may finally put to bed this insane love affair with the tram that runs through planning offices. Negatively, no alternatives, like the Trolley Bus mentioned in older posts, may be considered. I think this may be where my real anger at the project stems from. (My geographical location meaning that the building works and disruption don’t affect me) In effect, I’m annoyed that the problems of installing an unnecessary tram system in Edinburgh, a sure case study of Bent councillors and mysteriously appearing “Save the Tram” campaigns, will mean that the “Not viable” option will be used by councils as an excuse to do nothing, rather than “Seek Alternatives”

Back on the Air

Posted in Engineering, Work with tags , on July 10, 2007 by pieman70

I’m back, well on air at any rate, never really was away sadly.It occurred to me that I haven’t said much about what I actually do for a living. This is deliberate, as I have read too many horror stories about people being sacked for mouthing off in their blogs. So keeping it vague I am a civil engineer (in training) and I was out these last few weeks digging holes.

When I say digging holes I of course don’t mean myself personally. I had people to do that, I just had to look in them and describe what I saw (Mud) and take a photo (Of Mud). All peppered by discussions on how deep the holes should actually be. While this was compounded by the specification having 3 different figures it also wasn’t helped by older supervisors arguing in inches while I’m arguing in millimetres, and this leads me in a roundabout way to my point.

In short, why the hells do we still use imperial measurements. I’ve never heard a convincing argument beyond “Its what we’re used to” well newsflash old timer, in school since at least the early 80s imperial hasn’t been taught, there is an entire generation, now in their late 20s/early 30s who have been taught metric and have to learn imperial when old fools who refuse to move on won’t change.

An argument someone once tried to make was that all the imperial measurements were based on real things, that why people liked them, a foot was the length of a foot for example, well, who’d foot, my Size 11 or my mum’s size 4? An inch is a thumb width, again whose thumb, my pudgy digit or my beloved’s elegant slender thumb? And some are worse, chains, for example, are 22yards, as this was the standard length of surveyors chains, an antique piece of surveying equipment used before someone came up with the revolutionary idea of cloth tape with numbers at regular intervals.

SO, imperial uses vague measurements based on such things as the length of someone’s foot (We still don’t know who this foot belongs to) the temperature of the inside of a cow and the length of an obsolete piece of equipment. These also make for some interesting calculation if they need to be added to anything like a spreadsheet for calculation and tabulation. 1760 yards to the mile. Nice easy figure there, so much less confusing than 1000 millimetres to a metre, or indeed 1000 millilitres to a litre, gods forbid we work everything in base 10 for easy calculation.

And it’s not just this standard calculation based in easy to work with 10s that helps the metric system. Oh no, While some measurements are based on odd things (the metre is based on the distance travelled by light in an absolute vacuum during 1/299,792,458 of a second) ok not something I can measure in my living room but its not something that changes person to person. The original basis however were to use basic relationships between volumes of water, weights of water and the size of meridians. So for example a metric tonne of water is equal to 1000 litres or 1 cubic metre of water. 1 kilogram is the same weight as 1 litre of water.So why hasn’t the world adapted to this wonder system. America claims it too confusing. Proving that no one there has actually considered it seeing as its more intuitive and logical than the old imperial system (and what the hell is a quart anyway)

The UK is arguably worse, in that we have a bunch of sentimental oldsters combined with some rabid petty little Englanders who insist that our entire culture and way of life would be destroyed if you couldn’t buy oranges by the pound and that the metric system is “Soulless” well, That’s fair, we should indeed stick with a complex and confusing system because it has “Soul” as for the first point, our culture is far more about personal behaviour, attitudes etc than whether we use pounds or Kilograms, or pay in Euros, Pounds or Trigantic Ningis.

Lets ditch the misplaced sentimentality and adopt the metric system, them most it will cost is changing road signs.