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The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway - BBC Series image

The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway

Ten thousand engineers and construction workers race to complete the Elizabeth line.

About the programme

In this series of The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway, we follow the 10,000 men and women tasked with building the new Elizabeth Line underground railway, formerly known as Crossrail, underneath the busy streets of Central London.

This fifteen-billion-pound construction project, one of Europe’s largest and most complex has only nine months left to finish fitting out and testing of all of its 10 new stations, 41 kilometers of twin-bored tunnels, and its fleet of 66 new trains, before the line is due to open to passengers. However, the closer the deadline gets, the more the schedule starts to slip.

We’re on the ground as the pressure and challenges facing its workforce begin to grow, from installing 10 tonne ventilation fans at Canary Wharf Station, fitting out platforms and concourses the size of an aircraft carriers under Oxford Street, and the mission to launch test trains into the tunnels - all while keeping London moving.

This series follows events leading up to the announcement that the Elizabeth Line will be delayed by over a year into 2020 and require a further £2 billion of funding. We’ll see how engineers must pull together, working on borrowed time, to restore their reputation, the reputation of the new railway, and the reputation of British engineering.

Find out more on the BBC programme page .

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

Trains on the Elizabeth Line - The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway

Copyright: Windfall Films

The Forth Bridge

Iconic engineering: The Forth Bridge and Concorde

Why do we look on with adoration and amazement at some engineering creations while others leave us feeling indifferent? Dr Ian Johnston examines why some structures are worthy of their iconic status. 

The word "iconic" is overused and an impressive substitute for "well-known". A quick Google search for "iconic site:bbc.co.uk" shows that the word currently appears 54,600 times on the BBC website. A little more Googling finds the Oxford dictionaries'  online definitions:

1. A devotional painting of Christ or another holy figure, typically executed on wood and used ceremonially in the Byzantine and other Eastern Churches.

2. A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration: this iron-jawed icon of American manhood

It's the second part of the second definition I'm interested in: "worthy of veneration". Why do some engineering creations inspire awe in us while others leave us cold? Perhaps it's best to start by looking at two of the undeniably, or least deniably, iconic examples in the UK.

The Forth Bridge

Forth Bridge at sunrise

Photo by Jonny McKenna on Unsplash

The Forth Bridge was built from 1882 to 1889 after a false start with another design by Thomas Bouch. This was hastily cancelled when his Tay Bridge collapsed in a gale. It's a balanced cantilever design: each of the three main towers supports matching sections projecting north and south, holding up themselves, trains and the small link bridge between the main sections. When built it had the longest span of any cantilever bridge in the world, and is still second longest. So far so impressive, but what is it about the Forth Bridge which makes it special? Why has it become a symbol of Scotland, to Scots as much as to foreigners?

Well, for a start, there is nothing quite like it - or nothing in the UK, anyway. Girder bridges and suspension bridges are ten a penny; it's hard to get worked up about the Forth Road Bridge when there are generally similar looking things over the Tay, the Beuly Firth, the Humber, the Severn, the Thames and so on. The Forth Bridge, though, is unique. It strides confidently, arrogantly across the sea, not just one, not two but three massive linked constructions, shouting an exultant human defiance of the constraints of geography. It's also bright red, which helps.


Concorde

The iconic British Airways Concorde in flight

Eduard Marmet, CC BY-SA 3.0 GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons

Concorde was a ridiculous idea. A small plane (just 100 passenger) with appallingly poor fuel economy flying the ultra-rich across the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound, developed with £1.3bn of British and French taxpayers money before flopping miserably in the market with only twenty built. Concorde should be no more than a curious footnote in UK engineering history, alongside the Bristol Brabazon and the Princess flying boat.

Twenty years ago I attended a friend's graduation at Reading University. Afterwards, hundreds of us were milling around outside. It was a nice sunny day and the pub and café gardens of Reading were full. Just before six o'clock, a curious hush fell - an air of expectancy. Conversations drifted into silence, watches were looked at and eye turned upwards. Then, just after the hour, the six o'clock Concorde flight from Heathrow to New York passed overhead. Everyone watched, spellbound, then conversations restarted. 


The Saunders-Roe Princess flying boat at Farnborough air show, 1953

RuthAS under Creative-Commons license

At that time, Concorde had been flying from London to New York for approximately twenty years, with a number of flights a day passing over Reading. Even so, it still had the profound power to fascinate, to entrance and to set aside the bustles and conversation of everyday life. Why, you ask? Well, for a start, it just looks right. The Princess was a dumpy piece of engineering which only its designer could love, but Concorde was and still is aesthetically perfect from the balance of fuselage around the wing to the delicate curve of the leading edge.

Then there was what it does. Air travel is no longer a novelty; the rise of low fares airline have given it the glamour of a bus ride (with none of the convenience and rather worse customer service) and we are all used to travelling around the world at five hundred miles an hour. But to exceed the speed of sound is something else. Concorde flew faster than unaided humans can shout. It escaped from the physical limitations which define "here", "there", "nearby" and "far" and instead showed us the possibilities of escape. It's precisely the same idea which makes the hyperspace jump in science fiction so enticing: a leap away, beyond, apart.

So what links these two very different iconic creations? One is fifty thousand tonnes of steel sitting on another fifty thousand tonnes of granite: the other a mere eighty tonnes of aluminium. One is a solid, immovable tribute to Victorian civil engineering, still in daily use while the other was a frail and frantic dart, now only to be seen in museums. I think they gained their status because both of them answered very basic needs of the human condition: to take us beyond ourselves and our world, to cross the universe, to boldly go. And to look fantastic.


Meet the OU experts

Dr Ian Johnston. Senior Lecturer - Engineering
Dr Ian JohnstonSenior Lecturer in Engineering and STEM Open Media FellowVIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Ian Johnston. Senior Lecturer - Engineering
Dr Ian JohnstonSenior Lecturer in Engineering and STEM Open Media Fellow

Dr Ian Johnston is an academic engineer and applied mathematician with a passion for taking science to the masses. His official research is in superconductivity, in which he has gained his doctorate. Hewas academic consultant to "Electric Dreams" and  "Bang Goes The Theory".

Jeff Johnson, academic
Professor Jeff JohnsonProfessor of Complexity Science and Design - School of Engineering & InnovationVIEW FULL PROFILE
Jeff Johnson, academic
Professor Jeff JohnsonProfessor of Complexity Science and Design - School of Engineering & Innovation

Jeff is interested in the application of systems thinking and design in environmental, social and economic policy. He has worked on modules and courses in many areas including design, mathematics, artificial intelligence, robotics and engineering. 

Dr Nick Bingham, Senior Lecturer in Geography
Dr Nick BinghamSenior Lecturer in Geography - School of Social Sciences & Global Studies GeographyVIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Nick Bingham, Senior Lecturer in Geography
Dr Nick BinghamSenior Lecturer in Geography - School of Social Sciences & Global Studies Geography

Nick's interest in taking seriously the role that non-human entitles (whether they are insects and microbes or technologies and data) play in social life has involved him researching topics as diverse as food safety, the bee crisis and smart cities.

Professor George Revill - Professor of Cultural Historical Geography
Professor George RevillProfessor of Cultural Historical Geography - School of Social Sciences & Global Studies GeographyVIEW FULL PROFILE
Professor George Revill - Professor of Cultural Historical Geography
Professor George RevillProfessor of Cultural Historical Geography - School of Social Sciences & Global Studies Geography

George has worked on a number of OU environmental and social science modules. Current research brings issues of sound, mobility, communication and landscape together in terms of acoustic geographies of space, place, landscape and environment. 

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