Parts of the knowledge economy hit the buffers in South America

It has been said that Britain is becoming a knowledge economy, and also that metal bashing can now be safely left to the low-wage economies of the Far East. If only it were that simple. Consider the railway industry …

A visitor to the National Railway Museum at York will see in the main hall plenty of steam, diesel and electric locomotives, some dating back to the early part of the nineteenth century, almost all designed and built in Britain including many world beaters. But the visitor may also notice that the story of the British locomotive appears to end suddenly in the 1970’s.

The end of railway locomotive building is one small part of the decline of manufacturing in the UK, and the reasons for this decline have been discussed in Metric Views on more than one occasion. They include the disappearance of markets for goods using imperial measures, particularly in the former British Empire, and the failure of manufacturing industry to make a timely changeover to metric standards. The consequences of this decline are far reaching, as proposals for a new high speed rail line in Brazil illustrate.

The airspace between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo is among the most congested in the world. Almost eighty flights make the 400 km trip daily each way between the financial and cultural capitals of Brazil, and demand is growing. Airport capacity can not be increased, and the mountainous terrain means that the road journey takes five to six hours. Clearly there is need for a high speed rail link, which would reduce the journey time to 90 minutes, comparable with flying.

This technically challenging project has an estimated price tag of £5.3 billion. Bids to design, build, finance and operate the line close on 29 November. Potential bidders are believed to include:

China (a consortium comprising the China Railway Construction Company, China North Locomotive and Rolling Stock Industry Corporation, China Investment, and China Development Bank);

France (Alstom and SNCF);

Germany (Siemens and Transrapid);

Japan (Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Toshiba, Hitachi and Japan East Railway);

South Korea (KRNA, KRRI, Hyundai, Samsung Engineering and SK Engineering & Construction); and

Spain (Talgo)

(Source : Infrastructure Journal)

Readers will have noticed that there are at least two notable absentees from this list.

For the US, a reluctance to “think metric” is clearly a problem. Evidence of this appeared earlier this month when it was revealed that Westinghouse has made safety submissions in USC units to the UK Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, relating to its AP1000 Pressure Water Reactor: http://tinyurl.com/3ydc5qy

For the UK, the absence of a domestic world-class builder of rail vehicles has proved to be a real handicap. As a result, our internationally recognised expertise in other areas relevant to the project, such as financial services (yes, now making a come-back, despite problems on the other side of the Irish Sea) and civil engineering design (metric since the 1970s), counts for nothing. This has become a ‘no-go area’ for the knowledge economy, probably one of many which can be traced back to the decline of manufacture.

The list of potential bidders includes only one low-wage economy. It will be interesting to see, in a few weeks time, who bid and who won. One thing is certain – it won’t be a consortium based in the UK.

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4 Responses to Parts of the knowledge economy hit the buffers in South America

  1. john b says:

    I'm not sure your view completely holds here.

    For one, one of Bombardier's major R&D centres (as well as factories) is in Derby. Bombardier didn't bid for this project, because its expertise is in metro and medium-speed rail.

    For two, the UK has various top-class companies active in signalling (Invensys) and construction/engineering (Laing O'Rourke and Balfour Beatty). Here is an example of a major overseas rail infrastructure project won by a UK consortium. They aren't involved in the headline dealings for this particular project, but are highly likely to be involved later as subcontractors for their areas of expertise.

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  2. John Frewen-Lord says:

    I am not sure if everything in the article is entirely true. Certainly manufacture of British designed railway vehicles did stop in the UK many years ago. But this was due to poor design/manufacture and interfering politicians, rather than slow metric conversion per se. I am not sure if this was the overriding factor in the choice of bidders, but it could be, given that the successful group has to operate as well as design and build it.

    Foreign manufacturers (e.g. Canadian owned Bombardier) do still manufacture their products in the UK for the UK market. These manufacturers could be very easily used as subcontractors/suppliers on this project, and in fact I would be surprised if any of the bidders would not have to subcontract some part of its proposals, even if they are shown to be builders of railway vehicles first and civil engineering contractors second.

    As the article correctly points, the civil engineering industry in the UK has been fully metric for a number of decades now, so I don't believe that counts for nothing. British desgn companies are fully capable of operating in a metric world (witness Sir Norman Foster's design on the Millau Viaduct in France). There may be a question as to whether there are any large UK companies left capable of project managing a project as large and complex as this, and that could be one key reason for no UK proponents in the list.

    In projects like these, in my experience, procuring attractive financing packages is usually the most important factor for the project to proceed, and here I would have thought the UK was well placed in this regard. Maybe not. That, I would suggest, could be the real reason why there is no UK name in the proponents - the rest of the project design, construction and operation, assuming capable project management, is procurable as subcontractors and suppliers, with or without some form of risk sharing.

    In all of this, use of metric is a given, and I would hardly think this is a factor in the choice of bidders, either directly or indirectly. Even US companies manage to build and operate large projects in the metric world, albeit usually with local (metric-conversant) help. The lack of a US name in the list is likely due to political reasons, rather than whether the US is metric or not.

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  3. philh says:

    Laing O'Rourke do work in the relevent field but don't operate in South America see:

    http://www.laingorourke.com/aboutus/Where_we_operate/Pages/Home.aspx

    Balfour Beatty seem to have 'acquired' a number of companies from around the world:

    http://www.bbrail.com/About-Us

    I guess the moral of this is that modern companies are not simply UK based even if they started there.

    One thing is certain though. They all have to work in metric if they are to flourish in a global economy.

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  4. Han Maenen says:

    Some years ago I visited the Railway Museum at York and I enjoyed it. There was a sign stating that the information about the trains, carriages etc. at the exhibits was in imperial, as these British trains etc. had been designed in these units. I could understand that and would not object to information in non-metric in such a specific case. However, there was also an exhibit of the Japanese HST and I was not amused about what I saw there. The information was in a format that suggested that imperial units constitute the real International System of Units, not metric. Not just in English, but also in Japanese the information was in 'imperial (metric)'. The Japanese people do not need that. It also stated that information in French and German existed, but it was not here. I suspect that French and German people would also have been given this imperial (metric) information if this exhibit were to be shown there: for instance 250 Meilen pro Stunde (400 km/h).

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