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Interview: In for the long term

iain mckenzie

Just starting his two year tenure as chair of the Geotechnical Asset Owners Forum, Iain McKenzie plans to build on the excellent work the client-based forum has already achieved.

In a world where an “intelligent client” is the ideal, a forum bringing together such like-minded clients has to be beneficial for the sector as a whole by creating opportunity to discuss common problems, challenges and solutions. The Geotechnical Assets Owners Forum (GAOF) does just that for the ground engineering sector and the organisation’s has a new chair clearly understands the critical nature of the group.

Welsh government principal geotechnical engineer Iain McKenzie was appointed as the new chair of GAOF late last year and is already focused on building on the work of his predecessors. McKenzie took on the two year role having spent four years sitting on the forum representing the Welsh government and believes the forum is invaluable to both its members and the wider industry.

“I’m the only geotechnical engineer who works for the Welsh government,” says McKenzie, “so the forum is incredibly valuable. I have no other peers to discuss purely geotechnical matters with.

“To be able to be involved in the forum that has a phenomenal level of experience is great. It is the people who wrote the standards and who have a long term prospective on the assets they manage. They are not just geotechnical engineers but also asset managers and there is definitely this idea that runs through everything that assets are for the long term.”

The forum meets two to three times a year and includes representation from major geotechnical clients including Highways England, Network Rail, Transport for London, Welsh government, Transport Scotland and HS2. Each meeting is based about a timely theme or topic - such as asset deterioration modelling or data handling - and the forum uses their contacts to invite a speaker or expert along.

“It’s the benchmarking against other organisations, the common experience, the sharing of our experiences and what is best practice, that is most useful.

“Recently Network Rail had some third-party landowner issues and we were able to all bring our experiences in and talk through the common problems we all had.”

McKenzie continues: “I personally tap into that experience the forum has. It is essentially about the dissemination of ideas and I definitely want to continue with that and the sharing of the common experience.”

Asset management in this country is excellent. We have a history of sticking to the rules and by and large standards are followed. If we use highways as an example, I am not aware of any country that is doing it better than us

The forum was formalised in 2007 and McKenzie thinks it is more powerful for that, especially for academia.

“There are a lot of engineering departments around the country that are interested in the data that we hold,” explains McKenzie. “If they can approach us a body who represent a lot of data and that is very useful.”

McKenzie believes the group can grow by putting out more position papers and this is something he intends to develop during his tenure.

“There is potential to start putting out more position papers. More often than not, as asset owners we are the client. There is a duty for us to be the most informed client we can possibly be, and how that works with the investigations we put out and the steer we give which feeds into the supply chains.

“If we start putting out some position papers, even just endorsements of existing standards, then it would give a steer to a consultants and contractors who don’t always have one-to-one contact with us,” McKenzie adds.

With technological advancements, does McKenzie think the forum and the industry has anything to gain? “The big technical advancement the industry has seen recently in the increase in remote monitoring techniques and we need to keep an eye on those and the possibilities for the industry,” explains McKenzie.

“It’s drones, satellite and Lidar but also something that Highways England is doing – hyperspectral imaging– looking at moisture content.

“To a certain extent time will tell what proves to be most useful. Not all of them will work and fulfil the potential.

We need to maintain and invest in the assets we have and that requires money, thought and time so we don’t run into problems

“We are all asset owners, but we are all at different stage and looking after different types of assets. Highways England, Network Rail and Transport for London are very advanced organisations. Their level of understanding about data capture, how it is organised and how you can mine that information to get the accurate models is a long way ahead.

“I wouldn’t wish to change the group, it works well and you always come away having learnt something. Even if it is what we should be doing.

“Asset management in this country is excellent. We have a history of sticking to the rules and by and large standards are followed. If we use highways as an example, I am not aware of any country that is doing it better than us.

“It is a slow moving conservative industry, which is a good thing. It is slow and stable and that works best.

“We don’t have a history of things going catastrophically wrong in this country. There is sometimes the feeling that as long as things are not completely falling down then everything is okay. And that is just not true.

“We need to maintain and invest in the assets we have and that requires money, thought and time so we don’t run into problems.

“We might get asked when the last embankment that has fallen down, and we would have had several small ones but that is because we have been managing the big high risk assets, as well as repairing things in time before the catastrophic point. It is a liability we have now and forever.”

“I looked at the some of the earlier papers recently from when the forum was established in 2007 and it was discussing the same topics then as we are now. They were almost exactly the same.

“The ground doesn’t change an awful lot it seems.”

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