Introduction by Professor Ron Bridle

IntroductionA number of years ago, on a rainy Monday morning, I received a telephone call from Sir Peter Baldwin. On the Sunday he had watched the raindrops trickle down the window and a thought occurred to him. While the Victorians had been squirrels in keeping information, memorabilia was now rapidly disappearing as the pace of modern life quickened, despite our increased ability to store and retrieve information. Sir Peter was struck by the fact that while very much was known about railway history little was known about the motorway achievement. Material had already been lost and if the recollections of those involved were not gathered now in a decade it would probably be impossible.

We went on to discuss what could be done. The upshot was a decision to embark on the creation of a social history of the motorway era as seen through the eyes of those who took part, the whole to be collected together and preserved for future generations in ‘the Motorway Archive’. This and the other two volumes are part of the Motorway Achievement and one of many intended ‘outputs’ from the much more extensive Archive.

The creation of the Archive was only possible thanks to the tireless efforts of a ‘grey army’ of retired professionals who joined together to put together an archive of information and recollections to record the many and varied activities involved in the motorway programme. The Archive is distributed amongst record offices around the country rather than being housed at a single central location because the volume of information and its geographical spread made this a more efficient arrangement.

The structure of the project was divided into three divisions of interest. Firstly there is Policy and Administration, secondly there is Practice, including the input from research, and thirdly there is Planning Design and Construction. Each was broken down into topics, a team leader chosen and assigned to collect relevant information, by recruiting further teams, or by personal effort. The team leader was then asked to write an ‘Executive Summary’ which was intended to illustrate the main impacts and provide a social history which could be used as a starting point by researchers. Access to the material is to be electronic, through a central data base available from a web site. Retrieval will also make use of the same technology to make it available to researchers. Later, efforts will be made to reprocess the information into learning packages for schools and universities.

The task could not be exhaustive because of the missing material and missing people, but the best that could be done was done. There is still more to be discovered and it is expected that gaps will be filled and revisions made by later researchers.

To improve accessibility to a wide lay audience it was agreed that a volume would be prepared for each of the three principal areas. Each book would set out a retrospective review, collecting, assembling, editing and translating the variety of executive summaries into a version of key insights and accounts of events that would appeal to the lay reader.

This volume ‘Frontiers of knowledge and practice’ is one outcome of that process. For the topics chosen it charts the key determining points in the growth and output of research and development, experience and invention, and its translation into the standards and directions which formed engineering practice in planning designing and building the motorway network.

Each chapter was compiled from much more detailed material contained in the Archive drawing upon previously written summaries assembled from information gathered and interpreted retrospectively. Each of the compilers listed at the start of this introduction was an eminent participant in the motorway programme and also a specialist who had contributed significantly in the area of practice covered by the chapter he compiled. The task of the compilers was only possible because of the quality of ‘Executive summaries’ created as a synthesis of many more contributions from the ‘grey army’ referred to earlier; the authors of the Executive summaries are all acknowledged in later chapters as are many of the other contributors and their original work is accessible directly in the Archive.

After the compilers had finished their work, I edited each chapter with the assistance of John Porter. We were particularly concerned to achieve an overall balance and ensure that the text would be readily intelligible to a reader with little or no specialist knowledge of road construction. I and my co-editor are most grateful to the compilers and all those others who contributed to the Archive and assisted in the preparation of this volume but as editors we take full responsibility for the final shape and content of the volume.

It is hoped that the edited text and illustrations give a clear appreciation of the development of practice in each topic through the growth of knowledge understanding and application over the motorway era. However, for those who wish to dig more deeply, to test the opinions expressed or the implications drawn, then it is necessary to take recourse to the Archive and the papers contained therein. For practical reasons the number of references given in this volume is limited but a much greater number of references are to be found within the Archive itself.

The help of the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Institution of Highways and Transportation is greatly appreciated in the direct help and aid in kind they have given. Michael Chrimes, Head Librarian of ICE has been an efficient and helpful Chairman of the Publications Committee and helped individually in many ways. In addition Robert Baldwin has provided an invaluable contribution in compiling the index with the support of the Rees Jeffreys Foundation to whom we are indebted. The editors are also grateful to the Transport Research Laboratory and many other organisations, too long to list, who have given assistance in producing this volume. In addition many unnamed individuals have made a contribution by commenting on drafts and adding their recollections to the Archive material. For these contributions, tribute is paid; this volume could not have been produced without this generous assistance.

Looking back over the last four years or so it is a real joy to have come to a concrete staging post such as publication. It is, nevertheless only an interim event, because the project should be ever continuing, to be added to and broadened over the years to come. A Trust has been set up to do so and to manage and extend this treasury of information and analysis.

Participants have given a great deal of time to contributing to the preparation of what now exists and to encouraging other volunteers to do likewise. Although there are specific acknowledgments of the efforts of those who contributed directly to this volume, I take this opportunity to provide a personal thank you to all those who have engaged in the project, They have given time at a point in their lives when time has become precious. Indeed some have died before seeing this tangible outcome of their work and we remember them with affection.

The wish of key contributors to this volume is that I should say that the work should provide a living inheritance to those who follow us. We see the Trust passing into their hands and that protocols will be agreed with private organisations to supply archival material to the record offices, now engaged in storage. Whenever there is a view that may be committed to a diary, or to some transitory file, they should ensure that it also enters the Archive. The aim is to keep the needs of history in the consciousness of the present and stem the erosion of valuable records exposed by the current project.

We also hope the Trust will extend the coverage to include wider transport and land use topics. Both are interdependent. The course of history shows that all things are interactive in subtle, astonishing and stunning ways. It has shown how invention and its exploitation has an impact on society and how the changing nature of society and its governance has, in turn, its impact on the rate and nature of the implementation of inventions. It is well illustrated in Volume 1. In 1790 when it took 200 people to make a bale of linen, it would have been thought wildly improbable that it would be done by one man and a machine; but, by 1812 such was a reality. In a smaller way it is recorded that all tar and bitumen macadams were, in the prewar period, laid by hand in the UK. The first automatic paver was imported under lease-lend arrangements with the USA in 1941 and made a vast difference to the rate at which airfields were built and repaired.

It is only necessary to look at the trips carried by the highway and railway networks to note the impact made and the benefits of mobility taken up by the public. In 1950 the number of journeys for freight, public and private transport were similar. By 2000 train and other public transport journeys had halved while journeys by road increased more than eightfold. The Motorway and Trunk Road Programme has had a more significant effect in redistributing land use and population than previous policies in respect of new town corporations or the regional policy of providing grants for the relocation of industry. The effect is much greater than generally appreciated. The increase in mobility and accessibility has gone unnoticed as we have lived through the changes.

It is accepted that technological advance has not been without its problems but the compilers of this volume are more than optimistic that technology will also solve the current problems of pollution and ensure that the motorway network is an even greater asset in the future. As the problems of pollution are solved we will look back and regard the revolution created by the car and the truck to be as fundamental and as useful as that created by the invention of the railway.

As productivity has continued to increase so has population but so has the extent of information and understanding. We no longer stand in awe of the future. Despite the uncertainty still attached to forecasting we can see more clearly some of our future problems, even if we are less sure of, or unable to agree some of the solutions.

We acknowledge in this and the other volumes the problems we leave behind as a result of our ignorance, of unforeseen circumstances, or our blindness to them because of complacency or commitment to the immediate. Leading scientists and engineers have well described future problems arising from our continued conspicuous consumption of resources. Raw materials can no longer be regarded as of infinite supply and there is now continued damage to the environment and ecosystem cleaning services provided by nature. Massive scientific and engineering effort is needed to increase physical efficiency in transportation, probably now the biggest business in the world, more than tenfold and this also means ensuring optimal land use.

These problems have been addressed in Volume 1 while Volume 2 is concerned with the problems and solutions sought in developing design and supervision practice over the motorway years. Volume 3 shows the specific examples of that practice put into use.

Chapter 1 sets out the background and framework of administration in the practice of progressing and implementing the programme and in providing and improving its technical content. It can be compared with Chapter 7 which describes the practice followed by the contracting industry and its view of the structure of contract tendering, letting and supervision applied by the Department. It has been compiled by well known personalities in the contracting industry.

Nowhere has the freely provided view of practitioners been suppressed by editing in the cause of political correctness or for any other reason. However it must be remembered that the views may be partisan and the reasons given for those opinions need to be carefully weighed. Compilers have been urged to supply their supporting arguments and editing has tried to ensure that they are not obscure and are presented in their best light. The reader is therefore asked to read all chapters with that in mind and bring his own critical faculties to bear to obtain the best from the text that he can.

For example amongst the arguments on tendering the reader may ponder on how an ‘experienced contractor’ may be defined or the lowest tender set aside given the conditions of contract and the requirements of public accountability. It could be argued that the market adjusts to meet the conditions imposed upon it. Indeed that process can be clearly seen, whether it is for the better or the worse is also food for debate. Engineers believe that they were constricted by administration, but could individual professional judgment withstand public challenge against the acceptable political face of the lowest tender.

Similarly, given the need for transparency in Public Inquiries and the behaviour it generated could the programme have been adequately managed to provide for serial tendering? The reader will find himself pondering these questions as he reads, and they are not resolved in this introduction.

The fact is that the contract structure is certainly adversarial but it cannot be alone in generating the behaviour of which it is accused. It is rather like blaming the road system for accidents when clearly the personality of the drivers is the main factor. Hopefully new forms of contract will help to induce collaboration, but it is not possible to put personality aside as we may yet see. Nevertheless, I have advocated the proposed changes, often in print, and believe they will result in improvements, but we must wait and see.

Indeed human frailty is a factor which impinges greatly on the work undertaken and the reader may find the discussion on certification in Chapter 6 of considerable interest in this regard. Although introduced to ensure greater safety in the design of bridge structures it has been extended to give assurance in many other areas as the reader will find in other chapters.

Chapter 2 describes the dramatic effect of the advent of computers in the early years of the motorway construction programme while Chapter 3 explains how the new computer technology was an important facilitating mechanism in designing the alignment of the new motorways. Other examples of the benefits of computers are distributed throughout the rest of the volume.

The role of research in illuminating engineering intelligence and feeding into practice is illustrated throughout the volume. The evolution of the Road Research Laboratory through time to the Transport Research Laboratory reflects the widening perception of the problems faced and the changing character of priorities from building durable roads to optimising their function and making their operation more efficient. Thence Chapters 4, 5, 6 and 7 describe the creation of the infrastructure of roads and bridges while Chapter 8 deals with the growing importance of operation, from simple signing and lighting to considerable electronic hardware and software requiring increasing technical skill. Optic fibres have already had a major impact in communications and we look to the future for speed control and convoying to emulate the safety characteristics of the rail system, but with infinitely more flexible access.

The upshot of this retrospective is to plot a road from certainty in calculation to uncertainty in appraisal, but with the development of methodology to deal with that uncertainty; Volume 1 needs to be read so that the entire canvass of change can be seen. That road has also meant the march toward reliability methods ensuring decisions are made in the choice of projects and artifacts that use resources optimally and are risk averse to catastrophe, that is, in the event of failure, there should be the least damage possible and the least economic loss. It is to be regretted that despite the availability of analytical techniques to help in determining an efficient use of resources, the approach in the Department (DETR) seems to rely heavily on subjectivity to examine options for investment in road transport. While a degree of subjectivity in choice of investment options is necessary, it is not reasonable to set aside the assistance that the discipline of economics can give.

Reading the list of contents shows the range and breadth of the subjects and it is hoped that the account conveys the dedication of everyone involved, not simply in building the archive but, more importantly, in building the motorway network. I wondered, in preparing this introduction, how that dedication might be best described. David Lewis, formerly Superintending Engineer (Bridges) in Eastern Road Construction Unit, drew my attention to the works of John Ruskin, in particular to ‘The Stones of Venice - Volume 1 - The Foundations’. I was aware of the work but David's letter made me see the parallel with the foundation provided by ‘knowledge and practice’ and the relevance of the following extracts.

‘Consider first, therefore, what you mean when you say a building is well constructed or well built. ..... To pronounce it well or ill built we must know the utmost forces it can have to resist, and the best arrangements of stone for encountering them, and the quickest ways of effecting such arrangements, then only, so far as such arrangements have been chosen, and such methods used, is it well built. Thus, the knowledge of all the difficulties to be met, and all means of meeting them, and the quick and true fancy or invention of the modes of applying the means to the end, are what we have to admire in a builder. .... Mental power, observe not muscular, not mechanical, not technical, not empirical. .... pure, Majestic, massy intellect, not to be had at a vulgar price, not received without thanks, not asking from whom.

‘There is no saying how much wit, how much depth of thought, how much fancy, presence of mind, courage and fixed resolution, that may have gone into placing every single stone of it. This is what to admire .... the grand power and heart of man in the thing, not his technical or empirical way of holding a trowel or laying mortar.’

I remember, at some time in the past, a TV reporter visiting a site and asking the workmen, ‘What are you doing?’. One said, ‘Working for ten shillings an hour’, the reader can see how long ago it was. The second said, ‘Laying bricks’, but the third said, ‘I am building a cathedral’. Most of us who were engaged in the motorway programme would throw our lot in with the third and simply wish we had the skill of a John Ruskin to describe the feelings we held, but I for one, am content to leave it to John Ruskin. The illustrations through this volume show that we have been true to the past.

I also recall one cold, misty, grey, wintry, West Riding, Sunday morning raising my two daughters early from their warm beds to go to site and see beams lifted into place for a bridge designed by a friend, Jack Evans, lately retired Deputy Chief Road Engineer in Wales. Afterward, when my family used the Sheffield-Leeds motorway, the bridge was always known as ‘Uncle Jack's Bridge’. My youngest daughter now lives in Yorkshire and my surprise can be imagined when, using the M1, I heard my grandchildren refer to it as ‘Uncle Jack's Bridge’. It prompted me to wonder which generation might ask ‘Who on earth was Uncle Jack?’

We shall all pass anonymously into history, but, engineers and others who worked on the motorway network were uniquely privileged to make the contribution they had the opportunity to make, embracing standards of trust, fidelity and the meeting of obligations without the need to ask the question, ‘What's in it for me?’.

An apology.

The photograph on page 244 of 'Frontiers of Knowledge and Practice' unfortunately missed out Bill Downie, the first Head of Engineering Intelligence Division, who succesfully steered the new Division through its early years from its formation in 1964 until 1969 when he was appointed Ministry of Transport Divisional Road Engineer in the South West Division. The Editors offer a sincere apology for this omission.