The new chair of the British Tunnelling Society, Roger Bridge, talks to GE about the challenges and opportunities facing the sector, and why the UK’s tunnelling fraternity leads the world.
The role of British Tunnelling Society (BTS) chairman could be considered a bit of a poisoned chalice. Why were you keen to take the role?
RB: The chairman role is exciting and challenging and I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to lead and shape the future of the British tunnelling profession and industry.
British tunnellers have such an outstanding recent resumé and the current prospectus, from the East London Link to Crossrail, not to mention upcoming projects like Silvertown, Thames Tideway, High Speed 2 (HS2) and even Crossrail 2, show that we are certainly not short of experience. What I hope to bring to this role is time, drive and focus in helping British tunnelling meet the challenges of the future in terms of bringing about innovation, offering better value and collaboration to our customers, and developing the talent of the future which will be needed in ever greater numbers to satisfy demand.
With my previous experience of engaging with members as an elected member of the BTS leadership committee and vice chairman for the past two years, I feel well placed to meet these challenges with the support of our 800 members as well as the corporate members.
What do you hope to achieve during your tenure as BTS chairman?
Over the past few years our industry has been increasing its engagement with customers, helping to shape major infrastructure projects such as Crossrail and HS2. Facilitated by the BTS there is a great opportunity for us to have a positive influence on encouraging greater early contractor engagement on schemes like Crossrail 2 and Silvertown.
Drawing on the vast experience of BTS members involved in the delivery of the Crossrail project, BTS will also deliver over the next 12 months a good practice guide for the delivery of safe sprayed concrete lining works. Other initiatives include the development of new courses in conjunction with TunnelSkills to close current gaps in tunnelling specific training.
Clearly maintaining an influx of skilled personnel into the industry is an issue. What can be done to improve the education and training of young tunnelling engineers?
The potential increase in workload for the wider construction industry does present problems with ensuring sufficient numbers of qualified personnel continue to enter the industry. Capturing the attention and the imaginations of the tunnellers of the future is the key.
UK plc is already achieving high standards of broad civil engineering training for new entrants into the construction industry, but the BTS has been building on this, working collaboratively with academics and experienced tunnelling practitioners at Warwick University to develop an MSc giving undergraduate engineers exposure to the specific challenges associated with the delivery of complex tunnelling infrastructure projects.
Roger Bridge cv
Current position: Balfour Beatty tunnelling manager, BTS chairman
Other key positions: Member
of the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy Industry Advisory Panel, TunnelSkills management Committee member. Previously vice chairman of the BTS
Hobbies: Rugby, shooting, cycling, woodworking, golf
Relaxation: Time at home in the Cotswolds with family or listening to music
Our objective was to provide them with an understanding of the additional skills and some initial site experience that will assist them immediately when they arrive on site for their first role.
It is gratifying to see a real interest in raising standards in the tunnelling profession. The course at Warwick has seen a steady increase in the numbers attending it, with double the numbers of full time students on the course this year from last year.
Mindful of the industry’s need to improve our ability to attract “new blood” into the industry and support young people when they do, the BTS has formed a young members’ committee to tell us what we can do to enhance careers and to work more closely with schools and universities to spread the word. They have recently produced an excellent teaching pack which is currently being distributed to junior schools.
We intend to develop a further pack to target a wider age range. Social media is helping us with this message and I’d encourage anyone reading this to ensure that their organisation and colleagues are following @BTSYM to hear more about this.
What are the other challenges facing the UK/international tunnelling industry and how can you/the BTS address these?
While our trade press do a great job of sharing scheme achievements and successes, tunnelling is a sector of the construction industry that doesn’t tend to receive much coverage in the consumer press except for exceptions such as when something goes wrong.
Many people in the UK, or any country where tunnelling is occurring, feel that tunnelling leads to disruption of their journeys and perhaps don’t consider the immense short and long term benefits.
The recent BBC2 Crossrail documentary was an excellent piece on what tunnelling means and contributes at its best. Building on that, we need to work more closely with the mainstream media to increase awareness.
What/were are the biggest opportunities open to the UK/international tunnelling industry and how can you/ the BTS capitalise on them?
There are lengthy discussions occurring regarding the complexity of projects these days and the large numbers of staff associated with delivering projects, with the numbers in the offices matching or exceeding those of the teams working below ground to construct tunnels.
The need to ensure quality and safety targets are exceeded whilst ensuring the public purse isn’t abused is understandable but have we possibly gone too far. Man-marking is necessary in some instances but not a blanket solution.
There are large numbers of personnel, both staff and supervisors, that could be better tasked with delivery rather than supervision. More time during the planning stage would enable a more robust assessment of the capabilities of contractors and consultants in our field.