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Boom times await highway engineers

Bruce Donaldson

Confidence in UK infrastructure and particularly roads remains high, and the government’s recent backing of the £7bn Oxford to Cambridge Expressway in the Autumn Budget is testament to that.

I often tell WSP’s graduates and apprentices that “this is a great time to be a highway engineer”, and I truly believe it is.

To ensure delivery of these large projects, companies must strengthen their business at all levels and invest in the necessary skills from apprenticeship to senior level. We and the wider industry need to be ready to address delivery programme challenges and market changes for 2018.

Our strategic highways clients are organised and have a better understanding of what needs to be done than I have ever experienced. At the same time, local authorities are finding that securing funding for roads projects is increasingly challenging.

Given these constrictions, we must make sure we have formulated strong business cases that clearly outline the benefits to encourage authorities to make positive funding decisions.

The best place to start in achieving this is to get a clear understanding of the long-term challenges to a region and provide comprehensive strategies that can deliver solutions.

Big pipelines

The major programmes the industry must deliver include the A96 and the A9 in Scotland, the A5 in Northern Ireland, Highways England’s Regional Investment Programme, the Smart Motorways Programme, the Complex Infrastructure Programmes, and the A487, A465 and A55 projects in Wales.

Over the next year we will see these programmes develop and 2018 could be either a tipping point or a crucial hurdle for many.

“The next 12 months will see progress taking us toward the superhighway’ – no accidents, no delays, no carbon, no impact”

The industry’s skill in justifying and presenting its projects to the public will be scrutinised and challenged more robustly than ever before as we run through development consent and the planning process.

In 2018 the key is smarter delivery of programmes. We’re now in a position where BIM gives us a base – a common data approach, and our sector is realising the benefits modelling brings in terms of clearer presentation of proposals, easier construction and better operation / maintenance.

This will strengthen further in 2018 with further improvements in technology and common understanding.

Lean delivery is also a growing movement across our clients as they seek to get the most out of their investment. Achieving this requires exceptional collaboration, which is a cornerstone of our industry now – if it’s not part of your culture in 2018, you’ll be out of place.

Post-Brexit strength

People always ask me about the impact of Brexit and I don’t want to dismiss the concerns many harbour. 

Fundamentally, the strength of UK plc is dependent on our infrastructure and its ability to connect the country, delivering and supporting economic growth. It is clear that infrastructure projects are at the forefront of government strategies, as the importance of a strong transport network from road to railway to air travel is being realised.

‘Superhighways’ is an old term but I find myself relating it to market changes in the sector.

We now see the move towards decarbonising our roads as announced by the Scottish Government. And we see the chancellor committing investment to autonomous and connected vehicle technology.

The next 12 months will see progress taking us toward the superhighway’ – no accidents, no delays, no carbon, no impact.

It is a great time to be a highway engineer.

Bruce Donaldson is head of highways at WSP

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