Engineering News (March 2018)

‘Beast from the East’ causes rail chaos

Many faced huge delays due to cancelled services during the recent extreme weather (labelled in the UK papers as ‘The Beast from the East’). As temperatures plummeted and snow was predicted, many train services were cancelled even though early on – there was no snow apparent. “Why did this happen?” asked many stranded passengers and many are still asking as they try to chase up refunds on their tickets.

There are varied reasons given and as the weather systems are changing, those reasons need to be addressed (or in some cases alternatives to the current solutions found). Network Rail themselves work on advice from the Met Office who issued red and amber weather warnings during this period. Some train companies work on the basis that it is better to err on the side of caution or ‘under-promise then over-deliver’, but this is not communicated and understandably can anger passengers and cause massive disruption.

Great Anglia Railways cancelled services to allow their engineers to concentrate on keeping priority routes functioning and the use of snow ploughs and extra heaters for the track points. Compacted snow can form solid ice very quickly in cold weather and this can cause points and their corresponding rails to stick together, meaning that signals will stay red, and have a wide-ranging effect on train travel. South Western Railways reported that ice on the rails was causing problems as it prevented trains drawing power from the third rail.

Much of the UK rail infrastructure is not designed for extremes of temperature, but as climate change occurs and the weather becomes more erratic, novel solutions need to be developed to help keep this critical infrastructure functioning.

May turns her attention to the Housing Crisis

Prime Minister Teresa May gave a far reaching speech on housing at the beginning of this month, and although there was a clear and tough message, particularly for developers, some criticised her for not going far enough and taking ‘baby steps’ in reform. Her overall message was to make housing fairer, with young people being able to buy their own homes and also tackling the lack of adequate supply of housing for today’s population.

Mrs May described the lack of affordable housing as one of the “biggest barriers to social mobility we face today”, and described the ‘National Housing Crisis’. She stated that the root cause of this crisis is decades of not building the right homes in the right places, and believes that affordable and more stable housing will provide people with a sense of security and community that will benefit society as a whole.

The Prime Minister described many new government initiatives to help increase the supply of affordable housing and helping people to buy them. One area she particularly focussed on tackling was developers buying land, gaining planning permission, then not building straight away – a practice known as ‘land-banking’ for a later date, once land prices have risen. Her speech mentioned government support for training to ensure the construction skills the country needs were available and that if a developer has been given planning permission on a site in the past and failed to build on it, they would not gain planning permission on a different site until the previous site is developed.

Local Authorities would work with communities to ensure that people were at the heart of the planning process in their areas, and the Housing Infrastructure Fund would finance roads, cycle paths, flood defences and Sustainable Urban Drainage (SUD) – particularly if these measures then frees up more land for housing. There was also £1.5billion announced for a ‘Home building fund’ that would provide finance to smaller developers that would not attract finance from the private sector.

These measures would work alongside a radical shake up of the planning system that would impose greater protection for Greenbelt space, the increased use of Brownfield sites and commercial conversions, and the allowance of extensions to be built above shops so we build upwards rather than outwards.

Teresa May’s critics suggest that she should have extinguished Stamp Duty completely, should be tackling over-cautious mortgage lenders, and that some of the problems are overseas buyers buying property in the UK. This will remain a contentious issue for the foreseeable future.

Salaries rise in engineering in a bid to attract more skilled candidates

Recent research by the recruitment company CV-Library has found positive trends in the engineering sector. Advertised salaries in the engineering sector were up 3.6% month-on-month with an increase of 3.9% year-on-year, in a bid to attract more skilled candidates for the vacancies arising and being created. The figures are indicative of a positive start to the year for the sector, with engineering being third in the top ten sectors for ‘pay hikes’ according to the research.

Engineering salaries were on average reportedly around £47,000 for electronic engineers, and at least £32,000 for the those referred to as ‘environment professionals’.

The salary increase is seen as a bid to increase the number of candidates entering the sector, which interestingly concurs with a rise of 7.5% year-on-year of advertised engineering job vacancies.

Scotland to Northern Ireland bridge proposal

Boris Johnson’s suggestion to France’s president Emmanuel Macron about the bridge between France and the UK has opened up the debate on a long running idea for a link between either Wales or Scotland and Ireland. There are four possible routes that have been proposed with one of them being a bridge between Portpatrick in Scotland and Larne, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The link could potentially be around 25 miles long, and cost an estimated £20 billion pounds. Two senior DUP MP’s have reopened the pathway for new feasibility studies; the last one was carried out in 2015.

The bridge if built, would mean that this would be one of the biggest infrastructure projects in history in the UK. The business argument for the link in the form of a bridge or tunnel, says DUP senior MP, it would “have a major positive impact on both countries economically” and “is entirely feasible”.

Alan Dunlop, a professor of Architecture at Liverpool University even went as far as to suggest it would create a “Celtic powerhouse”. However, some critics argue that the Channel Tunnel across the English Channel was considered to do something similar and has so far struggled to make a significant profit itself. However, the benefits can be considered to be both tangible and non-tangible when you take into account the social advantages.

In terms of engineering, the proposed ideas can take one of two main forms – a bridge or a tunnel. The construction of a bridge would be cheaper, and the Larne-Portpatrick link proposal benefits from more sheltered coastlines and waterways with a lower level of shipping traffic. However, access to the bridge from both of the coastlines will mean a large volume of traffic travelling through relatively remote areas – meaning more infrastructural. changes on land. There is also the issue of an area known as Beaufort’s Dyke, a two-mile-wide, 30-mile-long, deep trench located off of the Scottish coast that was also used as a dump for unwanted munitions after World War 2. This is before structural and construction challenges for the potentially 21-25-mile-long bridge are even considered.

A tunnel would provide a better link between the more populated areas of Ireland and Scotland, with the Irish Academy of Engineering proposing a Dublin to Pembrokeshire, 50-mile-long rail tunnel. But this will mean the costs will rise considerably. The requirement for a ventilation island halfway across the sea above the tunnel will also add considerably to the cost.

With the Conservatives and the DUP in a parliamentary partnership, and talks about to open between the Scottish government and Northern Ireland, we almost certainly have not heard the last of this particular proposal.

Space computing for dummies

Computers in space have to endure extremes in their environment, such as vast changes of temperature and considerably higher than normal levels of radiation. These environmental factors affect the computing power and functionality of the computers onboard any spacecraft, meaning computers can become slower, unreliable and use more power than normal, amongst other issues. The problems with functionality and the limits of current computing power has limited the amount of research that can be executed in space, as there are also problems with remote configuration and controlling of such computers.

This “ultimate challenge” (says Alan George, founder of SHREC) of producing stable and fully functional computing in space has made huge steps forward recently by the work of engineers and scientists at the University of Pittsburgh NSF Centre for Space, High Performance and Resilient Computing (SHREC). Engineers at the centre have produced a reconfigurable, hybrid space computer that is capable of withstanding environmental extremes with high levels of reliability and speed, whilst lowering cost, size and power requirements. This super computer is known as the Space Test Programme – Houston 6 (STP- H6) and is capable of being remotely controlled from its university base on Earth. The chassis has been designed to meet the mechanical, thermal and ventilation needs of the computer in collaboration with the Swanson School of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science (MEMS), a first for the school.

The STP- H6 has passed harsh environmental tests, and is due to board the International Space Station (ISS) in around a years’ time.

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Engineering News – February 2018

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