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A question on why some UK engineering projects take so long

I don’t want to use these hallowed pages as a forum to moan about the odd personal gripe, but I think I can find an excuse as there is a larger point. What am talking about? I am talking about the fact that at my local London Tube (underground for you non-Brits) station, the down-escalator has been taken out of service for almost nine months. It is in Pimlico, and serves the Victoria line, one of the deeper of the stations in the capital. Result: I, along with everyone else, have to walk down a long flight of stairs, which was a bit of a problem recently after I suffered a painful foot injury (now mercifully healed). It also meant that it is impossible sometimes to use that station if you have heavy luggage. A disabled person would have to go to another station, which is hardly a great advertisement for public transport.

The explanation given for why it has taken this time to service and replace an escalator seems to be something like this: spare parts for these things are incredibly rare and specialised and take months to make. I can even remember once reading several years ago about how the Tube engineers were trying to find spare parts on Ebay. Now, a thought occurs: surely, in this era of computer-aided design, or CAD, and just-in-time stock inventory systems, it should be possible for an engineer, supplied with the correct measurements, to fabricate whatever spare parts he or she needs to fit into something like an escalator, or for that matter, an aircraft engine. And yet this does not appear to be the case.

Of course, another explanation is that the building contractors who work on the Tube, while they may contain some excellent staff, contain an awful lot of leeches who are happy to pocket the contract money and then spin out their contracts for as long as possible. So it may be that the procurement process is woefully inefficient. Even so, our forefathers who built much of Britain’s industrial landscape would regard such delays with contempt. I bet this guy would not have been very happy.

39 comments to A question on why some UK engineering projects take so long

  • 1327

    I’m afraid I have no experience with escalators but in my job do I have to maintain elderly (1990’s era) semiconductor clean room equipment and in the past electron microscopes from the 1980’s. With the electron microscopes circuits would go faulty in a big way. So a transistor would get so hot it would burn a big hole in the circuit board. The manufacturer doesn’t want to know so you have 2 choices. Design and build a modern replacement or buy a 2nd hand spare. We tried the first option a few times but the time involved in having someone (usually me) work out how this circuit interacts with the other circuits then design an exact drop in replacement was amazing. Far cheaper to get the company credit card and go on an ebay buying spree.

    Semiconductor manufacturing equipment is even worse since in the 1990’s the manufacturers started designing the equipment around a standard PC motherboard fitted with special cards. As Windows back then was pretty buggy the manufacturers seemed to prefer the long dead IBM OS/2 Warp OS. When it dies 20 years later though you have a problem. There is no way OS/2 will run on a modern motherboard. In addition there is no way you can make your own motherboard (even with CAD) so its ebay again. Even with that marvellous website sometimes you have to wait a month or so for the correct motherboard to go on sale.

    Now 20 year old equipment is causing me grief so imagine what it must be like to look after equipment from the early 20th century. I will bet the escalators were largely hand built and modified on site when fitted so a spare for one might not fit another.

    There has to be a business opportunity in this somewhere 🙂

  • The Victoria line is the second youngest line of the London Underground and was built in the mid to late 1960s and early 1970s. The section including Pimlico station was opened in 1971, so I doubt it is so old that the escalators were hand made. Parts may still be hard to obtain, just the same.

  • [Note. Like 1327, I must start with caveats: I am not a mechanical or transport engineer (though sometimes a systems engineer in a fairly wide sense); thus my view must be treated as only partially informed.]

    Victoria Line opened in 1968; Pimlico Station opened in September 1972. So presumably this escalator at Pimlico is 37 years old.

    From Wikipedia:

    When the Victoria line was constructed, severe budget restrictions were imposed and as a result the station infrastructure standards were lower than on older lines and on later extension projects. … At most stations there is still a concrete staircase between the up and down escalators, where an additional escalator could be installed. The lack of a third escalator can cause severe congestion at peak times.

    I think the age of repair and maintenance is, in many ways, pretty much behind us. This is certainly true of domestic goods. Failures in our house of fridges, washing machines, dishwashers, tumble driers, etc mostly lead to replacement, not repair. If any of the aforementioned items fail after 7 years service, there is little doubt in my mind that this is the cost-effective choice; a TV might get 4 years. In my small business, computers get 2 years, though if I can repair them myself (eg by replacing a hard disc), I do – but it is certainly not cost effective to pay for maintenance rather than replacement: one gets an upgraded product for (usually) about the same or less money.

    I suppose that escalators and lifts (and trains too) are in a somewhat different category, being more expensive and designed for a longer life. Perhaps the nearest equivalent in everyday life is the motor car, which we of course get serviced regularly. However, even they reach the stage where continued use is only practical for the dedicated, or perhaps cost-effective for low-mileage users.

    It is also the case that the relative costs of materials and labour have changed, such that production-line manufacture is so cheap that maintenance is cost-effective only for shorter lives. Equipment is manufactured on that basis, with manufacturing quality trimmed to fit, and modern component modelling techniques allow a better trade-off between required life expectancy and manufacturing cost.

    After 37 years, even for an escalator, I would have thought that, nowadays, replacement would be seriously on the list of options, as the most cost-effective choice. And the out-of-service period would presumably be usefully shorter.

    Another important aspect, relevant for this case, is that of customer satisfaction. Public transport, as far as I can see, has a much lower emphasis on such a thing. Do, for example, regular tube users who live (or work) near Pimlico get a reduction in ticket prices for this long outage, in recompense for the reduced quality of service? Please surprise me!

    Also noting 1327’s comment on his own responsibilities, I could not help thinking (on both cases), are they running a museum or a business? And if a business, has the equipment failed to reach its assumed lifetime for amortisation purposes – if not, what went wrong in estimating that?

    Best regards

  • Miv Tucker

    Of course, another explanation is that the building contractors who work on the Tube, while they may contain some excellent staff, contain an awful lot of leeches who are happy to pocket the contract money and then spin out their contracts for as long as possible

    I thought these contracts always contained a penalty clause, so I’m not sure why the contractors’d benefit from spinning the project out.

  • llamas

    As a working engineer, I’d say that there’s multiple levels of failure here (assuming that the parts issues are with the mechanics of the escalator and not, say, an electronic control system).

    – a failure of design – not looking to the future and thinking about how to design the thing so that it can be repaired, maybe with imperfect knowledge.
    – a failure of record-keeping. Every single part of that escalator was designed and drawn once. Obviously, the drawings are not available.
    – a failure of planning – if the design involved curiously-complex or difficult-to-source parts, maybe a smarter way to plan, bid and contract the thing would have included provision for additional purchases of those parts for future use. If they were expensive and difficult-to-obtain at the time of design, a smart planner would realize that they would be exponentially-more-difficult to get 20 or 30 years from now.
    – a failure of will. I don’t know much about escalator design but I do know that they are largely unitary in design (the same parts over-and-over) and they are designed for inspection and service in operation. I can’t imagine what part or parts might be needed that it would take 9 months to source.

    I recently enjoyed a rear-of-house engineering tour of the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit, built in 1928. It still uses the original elevators throughout (including a rear-of-house passenger elevator affectionately known as Christine) the original HVAC system, all the original stage mechanics (including a vast stage elevator/turntable) and all the original electrical distribution. I dare to say that all this technology is as complex as a 30-year-old escalator, and certainly filled with as many complex and hard-to-source parts. yet the on-site engineering staff, assisted by local specialty contractors, seem to be able to keep it all running. They just repaired the speed controllers for the induction air blowers, which were-are the same as were used for Detroit’s electric streetcars. These units were last built new in the 1940s. They had them rebuilt locally in a few weeks. It’s not hard, if you know what you’re doing, and you want to.

    Myself, I have staff responsibility for the service support for a series of very large machines that were originally built in the late 1970s and which are projected to be in service contracts through 2020. To fulfil our contract responsibility to keep these bad boys running takes some planning and some expenditures. We have over 500 traction motors for these things purchased and sitting on the shelf – there’s a program to visit each motor every six months, spin it over (to stir the bearing grease) and check the windings. We have PCBAs stocked and on the shelf, as well as blank laminates and life-time buys of some critical parts that cannot be practically re-engineered. We have ongoing programs to re-engineer some areas, eg to remove mercury-based contactors, or upgrade belt drives – where there’s a clear business case to do so. All of this is possible because I have every single engineering drawing for every single part of every machine at my fingertips, and a complete design and change history. And because the business case is there to fund this activity.

    I suspect that the escalators at Pimlico have been down for 9 months because of poor planning when they were new and poor management now they are old.



  • Could this be like the situation in many offices? Where if a bulb goes in light fitting, and would be easily changable by anyone with fingers, it is still necessary to wait for an electrician for a variety of idiotic buraeucratic reasons like health and safety. Not to mention the fuss the union would kick up for someone depriving a qualified electrician of work.

  • 1327

    My thanks to Michael for pointing it that this is one of the more modern tube stations. I had just imagined it was one of the older ones.

    Nigel asks if I was working at a museum – Well sometimes it felt like it. A huge part of the problem was that the equipment had been extensively modified to do things it was never intended to do. So even though the actual core equipment had long ago paid for itself the custom add ons had become vital making replacement even more difficult. One of my little babies last year was an ion beam miller which was only a few years old but the manufacturer had gone out of business. I suspect just being able to fix that and keep it going paid my wages that year.

    Now I can’t vouch for this but I was told a few years ago while on a course that pretty much all of the US military is dependent on a few 1970’s vintage automated wire wrapping machines. For the non technical wirewrapping is method of linking circuits together with individual wires wrapped around terminals. It makes for nasty looking circuits and is bulky. I doubt any commercial product has used this technology for years but as it is robust and can take just about any abuse the military love it. B52 aircraft , Abrams tanks and Minuteman missile electronics all use it. Whenever the electronics in any of these toys is upgraded they have to use the elderly automated wirewrap machines.

  • llamas

    1327 wrote:

    ‘Nigel asks if I was working at a museum – Well sometimes it felt like it.’

    My co-workers have provided me with a lapel badge that says ‘curator’, for those days that I am working on the old stuff.

    Regarding wire-wrap – I’d believe that story.

    But wire-wrap is actually a good example of a very robust technology. It can be done, fast and efficiently, by machines – but those machines are relatively-simple in design and construction, easy to service and easy-enough to build from scratch, if a body had to.

    Wire-wrap can also be done effectively and accurately by hand, using very simple tools – I have wire-wrap tools in my toolbox as we speak. It’s hard to do wire-wrap wrong, easy to do it right. The parts and materials are simple and easily-made. Field service and repairs are very-possible, and the technology does not age. Try repairing an SMT-based PCBA or BGA’s without a fully-equipped lab – it can’t be done.

    Wire-wrap is actually a good example of the sort of technology that should be considered for use in products that are expected to have a long life with high reliability and lots of service and repairs.



  • Current

    Unfortunately this sort of thing happens often.

    I worked in a place that had three electromagnetic anechoic chambers with measurement equipment that were built in house. They were all slightly different and relied on many obscure parts. The solution we used was to keep in stock a spare of almost everything so that a whole chamber could be rebuilt if needed. Doing this was very expensive because of the tied-up stock.

    I think that llamas is working on machines that are simpler than those that the rest of us are discussing. I could repair a 1930s electric motor, or a radio from that time if the thermionic valves were available. Repairing more integrated electronic devices from later decades and repairing more complicated mechanical parts is much more difficult.

    What 1327 says about wire-wrap machines could be true. Many parts are still made using cam-controlled screw machines. It’s not uncommon in engineering to find ancient special-purpose machines doing important tasks.

  • Jim

    I have a friend who runs an small engineering company. He can fabricate pretty much anything, from scratch. Once the CNC milling machine has been correctly programmed he can churn out the parts very cheaply. The setting up cost is the worse part, the more bits you do after that, the cheaper they become.

    Unfortunately he’s part of a dying breed of can-do engineers who can fix and fabricate stuff. These skills are dying out in the UK.

  • llamas

    Current wrote:

    ‘I think that llamas is working on machines that are simpler than those that the rest of us are discussing.’

    I think not!

    If I tell you what these things are, a simple Google may tell you who I am – which is not my intention.

    But I will tell you that these machines are about 60 feet long, weigh between 2 and 4 tons (depending on options) and are packed full of high-speed rotating machinery. Each one packs more than 20 hp of electric motors, coupled to a vast array of belts, wheels, gears, pulleys and mechanical drives of every sort. The electronics vary with age (the latest versions are run by a late-model Pentium) but all contain miles of wiring for the vast collection of sensors and integrated electric and electronic devices that they contain. Each also contains a number of highly-specialized sub-systems, often involving a significant amount of associated processing electronics subsystems. Card-Cages-R-Us.

    A good analogy for what we build would be a small-to-medium-sized aircraft. And a large proportion of the mechanical parts (apart from generic stuff like bolts and belts and bearings) is 100% custom.

    To the larger point, though – it’s not a question of simple repair. I’ve no doubt that you could repair a 1930’s electric motor that has a bad bearing or a flyway wire. But could you build a new one? The analogy to a 1930s radio is much-more apt – these are actually very-simple devices, and most of them are easy to repair – so long as you can get the valves (tubes). If you can’t get the valves – the radio is an ornament. And it’s virtually-impossible to even consider making thermionic valves from scratch anymore, at least at a price that makes it a worthwhile proposition. Which is why nobody in his right mind would presently specify vacuum-tube technology for a product intended to last a long time and be repaired well into the future – the parts are hard to get now, they will be impossible to get in the future (at a reasonable price) and the device is useless without them.

    There’s a whole sub-set of design philosphy about this sort of thing, and most of it leads to the conclusion that things intended to last a long time with high reliability need to be designed to be simpler – simpler methods, simpler materials, simpler techniques – not because these things are ‘better’ (they’re usually not) but because they can be understood, repaired and (if necessary) retro-engineered well into the future. Most of the current generation of electronic devices (and indeed, the previous 3 or 4 generations) have very short life precisely because they embody techniques and approaches which had a very short lifespan but very high initial cost, to the point where there is no possible business case for replicating them in the future.

    I recently had cause to service a 50 kW standby generator system which had not run for a year or more because the controller quit working.

    The generator? Fixed in an hour for a parts cost of about $100. Runs like the day it was made.

    The standby/transfer switch system? Not repairable at any price. It is only 15 years old, but the technology of the controlling electronics is completely obsolete, parts are unavailable, and even if discrete repair parts could be found, repairing the defective PCB would involve work amounting to micro-surgery. I might be able to find a spare on E-Bay, but fire insurance won’t let me use a part from an unknown source with an unknown history. IOW – it’s junk. And the owner will pay me to replace it with a newer version, which is built with all the electronics permanently-encapsulated, which will likewise be unrepairable in 10 or 15 years time.

    Not a good plan for a 50-year product.

    For a good example of how to do this right, take a look at the electric ‘mule’ system of the Panama Canal locks. This system is now over 100 years old, it still works and runs more-or-less exactly as originally designed. It’s on its third fleet of electric locomotives, but the tracks and switchgear are all still original. Designed to be repaired and renewed at tolerable cost for an essentially-infinite period of time. The generator room at Hoover Dam is another such place.



  • 1327

    llamas I have just the once used a wire wrap gun back when I was an apprentice on a nuclear industry job. I was amazed how easy it was to do and pretty difficult to do a bad job of it as well. Sadly I no longer have a wire wrap gun in my toolbox.

    Jim you are spot on about engineers who can do things being a dying breed. Sadly the rot has reached the top now. Last year I had a strange brainstorm and decided I should join one of the engineering professional bodies. When the application pack arrived it was pretty horrific. The introduction rambled on about how the engineer could damage the environment and every possible downside to engineering in general. There was nothing at all about the great engineers of the past or how engineering has improved society. The application form asked me about my qualifications fair enough but then started asking me about my procedures for health & safety and environmental damage. Never once did I ask what skills or experience I had actually doing things. The few free editions of the membership magazine they enclosed felt dumbed down . Needless to say the lot went in the bin. It is almost as though they want to call themselves engineers but without doing any nasty work or having the knowledge themselves. That in a nutshell is why the UK is in a mess.

    Sorry rant over.

  • Peter

    Nigel Sedgwick,

    You are completely correct – though your point about larger equipment demanding differing strategies certainly doesn’t hold true in terms of the mining sector. The market place reacted by producing more Fitter & Turner Tradespeople than straight out Mechanics.

    About the only mechanical-repairs completed on larger scale machines are structural repairs whilst the smaller segments of operational components are replaced. I can tell you that typically the inflection point for major equipment upgrade/replacement in terms of whole machines – is usually considered when structural/frame problems become too expensive relative to production on a year-on-year basis.


  • chreewar

    I am an industrial project manager on power plant shut down and retrofit jobs. This is pure laziness or utterly inadequate resourcing. Any simple mechanical part (and many simple electrical parts) can be fabricated in a matter of days given some extra money and some one to design the part and find and push the fabricators.

    If this maintenance is contracted out, the contract is written very poorly or not enforced.

    Either way, my confidence in government continues to decline. I have always believed: If you can trust a man with little, you can trust him with much. As well the converse. How can we expect the government to run these hugely complex programs efficiently or correctly when they can’t fix an escalator in 9 months?

  • Current

    Jim: “I have a friend who runs an small engineering company. He can fabricate pretty much anything, from scratch. Once the CNC milling machine has been correctly programmed he can churn out the parts very cheaply. The setting up cost is the worse part, the more bits you do after that, the cheaper they become.”

    The possibility of doing this is a common myth, promulgated by machine shops.

    If the part is simple and made of metal it is quite possible. However, in the sort of machines llyama is discussing that are not made for maintenance it often simply isn’t possible.

    To begin with manufacturers do not supply full drawings. Have you ever tried to rebuild a CAD model of a part from the object? Unless you have sophisticated technology to do so it is very time-consuming because you have to measure every dimension. You can’t tell from looking at a part what tolerances are critical. That’s why you have to take apart those things that connect to it to understand. If the exact shape of a compound curve matter then things become harder.

    For some parts it is topologically impossible to make them with CNC machines. For some it’s very difficult and requires different sorts of machine. For some the CNC tools needed are so fine that they break.

    Then there is the problem of materials. How do you know what something is? Is all of it the same material? What about the hardness?

    Machinists, mechanical engineers and CAD people are experts in this sort of thing. Often they tend to say “we can make anything like X” but, if you delve deeper you find that the answers are much more complicated than that.

  • Jerry

    Seems to be something of a split here.
    Electronic versus mechanical.
    As to the escalator, if the parts needed are mechanical (rollers, bearings, drive mechanisms etc. ) ANY competent, relatively modest machine shop should be able to reproduce ANYTHING you need, given the old part.
    9 MONTHS ?? Ridiculous and inexcusable, but hey, that’s the way wonderful GOVERNMENT works!!
    Electronics ?
    Whole ‘nother world.
    Llamas is right. The technology changes MUCH faster than ‘the wear-out’ rate of mechanical devices and there is usually no practical/cost-effective way of ‘going-back’. Yes, ANYTHING that was built before can be built again, even from scratch, but at what cost
    ( how many exhaust manifolds for a 1947 Hudson Terraplane do you need ? One ? $600,000 !!! )
    Good analogy is the warehouses full of government records stored on, ( gasp !! ) 800BPI TAPES.

    The hardware and software needed to retrieve the data is only in museums, and the stuff is only 40 years old !!!!

    Llamas, would love to know and see what you work on if for no other reason than what I suspect would e my huge ‘WOW factor’ !!

  • Petronius

    llamas brings up a good point about insurance. Here in Chicago, a friend is on the local city park council. They wanted to resurface the basketball court. If he used the list of city-approved contractors it would cost him 3 times as much than if he hired a couple of immigrant workers operating out of their garage. However, the city will not let him use the Bulgarians because they don’t have enough insurance. If somebody is injured by slipping on a city-owned court they sue for a large sum, assuming the city has deep pockets. The city protects themselves by demanding higher levels of insurance by their contractors. Thus my friend’s budget is busted.

    Now there are other reasons for using city-approved contractors, mostly having to do with the alderman’s brother-in-law being the contractor, but the insurance issue is a real one.

  • RRS

    Perhaps the underlying point being missed by all the “Techies” (in another life at the end of WW II, my first job was in engineering & “trouble shooting’) is that the disruption “costs” are not borne by the operators as additional work, lower work status, less profits, etc., but are spread out over a totally vulnerable set of “public consumers.”

    Y’wanna get it done, make it mean something hurtful to all who should be responsible that it gets done. ‘Til then, keep climbing – as I remember doing from the many “out of service” facilities on the various Tube lines when I worked in and out of London, including at the time the Victoria was being finished.

    How are things going on Jubilee – not much better, I wager!

    “He who serves the public serves no one!”

    “He who is served by the public had best serve himself!”

  • Sam Duncan

    (underground for you non-Brits)

    And Glaswegians. In the last ten years, I’d estimate the escalators at my local Subway station have been out of service for maintenance twice, maybe three times. (The entire system – which amounts to one circular line, the city’s geology not being well suited to tunneling – was pretty much rebuilt in the late ’70s, so they’re almost exactly 30 years old.) One of those periods I recall as being frustratingly long, but it was never nine months. Somebody’s seriously goofed there.

  • Samsam

    A few years ago a guy in California decided the freeway signs were confusing, and the Dept. of Transportation wasn’t interested in fixing the problem. He created and installed replacement signs that were generally considered an improvement. Quite a bit of time elapsed before anyone realized they weren’t official signs.

    Maybe you need some guerrilla engineers to fix your escalator.

  • Current

    This is one of the classic problems of socialist calculation. How does anyone judge the loss from the outage of a subway line for a day?

  • Kim du Toit

    Commentor Current has the truth of it. Inefficient repair work on public transport systems (be they roads, rail or whatever) cause almost-incalculable losses to our society through reduced productivity.

    As an observation (from a contractor friend who worked in Britain for many years), I have to think that British engineering, building and systems are just hopelessly inefficient, compared to those in the U.S.

    My friend ended up leaving the UK in disgust, and went to the Caymans, where he has been able to do every comparable job in about a third of the time than he could get done in Britain.

    When your country’s industry is less efficient than the Caribbean (!!!), you need to start doing some hard, painful self-assessment.

    By the way, using outdated and un-repairable equipment is not the sole provenance of the British. The U.S. Federal Aviation Authority uses 1960s-era mainframe computers to manage our air traffic control (!!!).

  • RayD

    Some very enjoyable posts here. I’d just like to add that I seem to remember that the company that made most of the LU escalators is Otis, possibly the largest manufacturer of same and very much still in existence, so it’s hardly a case of having to reverse engineer parts.

    I was using Piccadilly Circus when they replaced the escalators there and my guess for why it took so long to do was either a) they took the whole thing out and put it on a slow boat to China to the cheapest bid, or b) they were taking their lead from the great London builder’s tradition of “Starting” a job so you can’t get anyone else in and then buggering off to do another job (or two) somewhere else. Either way there was absolutely no sounds of anyone working behind the partition for the vast majority of the time.

    And as Current says above, it doesn’t cost LU a penny to have the escalator out for a year, so where’s the rush?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Excellent comments! Thanks.

  • Current

    Well, I’m not sure the comments about British engineering apply to it all. I’ve been doing electronic engineering for years and I think we Brits are generally quite good at that. I work with Americans and Chinese I don’t have any difficulty with the competition.

    “And as Current says above, it doesn’t cost LU a penny to have the escalator out for a year, so where’s the rush?”

    That’s part of the problem, but not the crux of it. If you go to Bavaria you will find everything like this fixed very quickly. However, you will feel the cost of that in your tax bill.

    I was trying to make Ludvig Von Mises’ point here. In absence of capitalist profit there is no gauge for action. It’s not that the planner can’t incentivise people to do well or prioritize tasks. The problem is he can’t know if any particular incentive is enough, too little or too much. He can’t know what priority between tasks is appropriate.

  • I think British engineers are still very good at building things. if you look at the major projects that have been built in China over the last decade, quite a significant portion have been built by British firms. And French firms. And German firms. I tend to blame unionised public sector work practices more than anyone else for the sorts of things Jonathan has been discussing here.

    Just as an interesting point, I recall that the contractors hired to repair the damaged freeways after the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake were promised a large bonus (a million dollars or so) for each day ahead of schedule they were in completing the contract and getting the freeways operating again. Unsurprisingly, they worked day and night and finished the repairs extremely quickly. Critical as I might be of Californian and Los Angeles politicians, this is one of the few times I can recall in which a public sector decision was made by people who seemed to understand the concept of an opportunity cost.

  • To RayD at 06.59:-

    If you are a “builder” in the Democratic People’s Paradise of New Britain,, then you _must_ take every job you are given. You know in your heart, that as this is a Free market, that you may never _ever_ get another. You could go down tomorrow, not being able to pay for the mortar or the lads. And the lads will come for you which the mortar will not.

    This law _may_ even apply to the megascumbag-type “contractors” who get “jobs” on the scale of escalators or channel tunnels. They are essentially no different from Fred Bloggs Joinery, who “builds stuff” in Lancashire if asked.

    That is life. I live in Southport Lancashire and I know about 300 builders. If one was given the London Underground, he would bite its hand off. And then he would come and fix my roof while “working in London”.

    Socialism does this because the taxation level is so tall. he’d like to finish the job uninterrupted and move onto the next, but you just can’t. You have to start the next one to be able to persuade the Bank that you can pay the taxation-bill for the last-one-but-three, and pay the lads, so they’ll sub you a bit longer.

  • Can anyone explain why the rebuilding of Derby railway station has taken *four* *years*, and still isn’t finished? And we’re not talking about any changes to the track or signalling – this is *just* the roofs over the platforms!!!

    Another example – the Welsh Highland Railway in Portmadoc. The track is laid all the way though, but it will be another two years before it can carry passengers. All because of the six figure sum it will cost to commission the signalling and safety equipment for the level crossing where it crosses the standard gauge Network Rail line.

  • If you want recent railway screwups in Britain, I might point to the saga of the recently built Shepherd’s Bush railway station, that was built on the West London line to provide a convenient railway station for the new shopping centre.

    Due to an error, the blueprints somehow called for a wall to be built far too close to the edge of the platform, which meant that (as described in the blueprints) the platform was far too narrow for the train station to be of any use. Rather than actually contributing some thought and building things sensibly, or even querying the blueprints they had been given, the contractors simply built what was described in them, leaving an entirely useless railway station. By the time that someone in charge realised there was a problem, construction of structures nearby had reached the point where moving the wall was a non-trivial exercise, which ended up costing an extra £7 million and delayed the opening of the station by quite a few months.

  • Eric

    When I worked for the US government as a contractor I used to see this kind of thing all the time. Usually the reason it took months to repair was there wasn’t enough repair money allocated (or remaining) for that fiscal year, so it didn’t get fixed until the next budget cycle.

    Note too that “repairs” for an escalator probably include some kind of expensive safety certification, especially if they’re fabricating parts. People can be maimed or killed on an escalator that fails in just the right way.

  • RayD

    @David Davis,
    I was attempting to be humourous. To the best of my knowledge LU do this work themselves, they don’t get Bob the builder in.

    But since you raise the point, the justification you give applies to every small business, whereas the practice of “starting” is unique to builders and would receive pretty short shrift if anyone else tried it on.

    My take on the situation is that building and allied trades, roofing, plumbing etc. suffer from a variation of “the bad drives out the good”. The dishonest builder always gives the lowest price and quickest completion date because he has no intention of sticking to it. The honest guy gives a realistic estimate and timescale and looses the job. Pretty soon honest builders are very hard to come by. Why do you suppose “Polish Plumbers” are so popular? My experience is that personal recommendation is the only way that works.

  • Harry Tuttle

    This discussion reminds me of Harry Tuttle from the movie Brazil.


    Sometimes I’m not sure if that film is a satire or a documentary.

  • llamas

    To be scrupulously fair, it may well be that the delays are not the fault of the repair contractor.

    I have seen this situation, more than once – we disembowel an aged machine in order to accurately assess the amount and cost of repairs, refurbishments and upgrades required, and present the estimate to the client. within the contract-agreed timeframe.

    The client then vacillates for 4 months, as the Audit Sub-Committee wrangles with the Ad-Hoc IT Working Group about the cost of OS upgrades and application patches, and Central Services argues with the Building Seciurity Supervisor over whether the contractor’s parking passes are charged to expenses or overhead.

    Don’t laugh – I’ve seen sillier sh*t done. Meanwhile, the machine sits, disembowelled, with drop cloths over it. None of these people’s lives, careers or paychecks are affected in the slightest by these delays – in fact, the langourous pace keeps them busy and Important-Looking. Can’t have any of that Waste, Fraud and Mismanagement, can we?

    I can see a general contractor playing the sorts of silly-b*ggers games described. I can’t see a specialty contractor like an escalator-repair outfit doing so – their business model does not permit those sorts of shenanigans.

    But I could be wrong.



  • Tim

    “Now, a thought occurs: surely, in this era of computer-aided design, or CAD, and just-in-time stock inventory systems, it should be possible for an engineer, supplied with the correct measurements, to fabricate whatever spare parts he or she needs to fit into something like an escalator, or for that matter, an aircraft engine. And yet this does not appear to be the case.”

    Oh, if you get a big enough computer controlled mill, ( cost for those things scale up a lot faster than you might expect) AND you can get your hands on the appropriate raw materials and alloys, (which may be months of waiting in and of itself), AND you have the facilities to run highly complex heat treating, surface coating/finishing, QA inspection (to include destructive testing for some critical applications)….

    Sure, theoretically, you could make such parts. But you’d need a lot of very highly skilled workers to set up and run all the equipment and processes, and THEN even they would need time to iron out the kinks that the original manufacturer had to work so hard to figure out when they first developed the part and its manufacture themselves.

    It is not uncommon for there to be one single factory in the entire world that can create a certain part… and that part is made with alloys that also are created only in one single place. Duplicating that capability somewhere else in order to exactly match the product through reverse engineering or simple technical data can be more costly than the first time around. If you’re talking about a part a couple of decades old… it will be even more expensive, if it is even practical at all.

    Just for good measure, you’ll also need to consider the vast contraction in certain types of heavy industrial infrastructure since the WWII. We simply cannot do, or build, or move certain things in the same amounts or on the same scale as we used to without incurring absurd costs.

    Are you the same contributor that a couple of weeks back posted about the fall, or lack thereof, to a stone age level after an apocalyptic event? If so, seems to me you’re missing a few orders of magnitude of complexity in your understanding of modern technology. I’m not berating you if you are in fact that person – everyone has to start somewhere, and most people in the world never have even the faintest grasp of what modern technology entails.

  • llamas

    Here is a company that I buy from:


    This is the last remains of the Elgin Watch Company, once perhaps the largest maker of mechanical watches in the world.

    They make metals that you can’t get no place else. In some cases, these materials have only one application. Some of their alloys are smelted-to-order and are used by one customer only. One of the materials I specify from them has a leadtime of 36 weeks and costs considerably more than sterling silver by weight.

    The material I specify from them is used to make a part that you could comfortably get hundreds of in a sewing thimble. If you think that the machinery shown in the picture (used to prepare the sheet stock) is complex, you should see what it takes to make the part out of the sheet stock . . . And that’s one tiny part.

    It’s not always easy. Sometimes you can pull a bar of Generalium off the rack, throw it in the mill, and make what you need. But it gets complex quick, and the complexity sometimes arises in the least-expected places.



  • I think there is a risk that this thread is losing it, after a tremendous start over the first 20 or so comments.

    So, in an attempt to get us back on course, I read from Wikepedia that Pimlico station carries something over 8 million passengers per year. Scaling that to 9 months, assuming that the walk down takes around 10 minutes more than the escalator down (perhaps a tad generous) and that we cost those minutes at the minimum wage of £5.73/hour (perhaps a tad ungenerous), and that arrivals going up the escalator are not inconvenienced, we come to a cost, over the 9 months, of £2.87million to the people of London, in lost time. Shoe leather is not included!

    Has Boris Johnson smoked this one yet?

    Best regards

  • Laird

    I am not familiar with the specific problems of the Pimlico Station’s escalator (of course, no one else here is either, so that’s no obstacle to posting an opinion!), and furthermore am no engineer (which perhaps should be, but no matter). Still, Tim, in answer to your post, this isn’t a Stealth Fighter or the Space Shuttle we’re talking about, it’s a f***ing escalator! There are millions of them in the world, and they all have a similar design. It’s not going to be made of exotic alloys with unique finishes. Hell, the tolerances are probably an order of magnitude larger than in your refrigerator. Forget about conputer-controlled mills; you could probably fabricate replacement parts by hand in any good machine shop, using scrap steel from the dump. Whatever the source of this particular delay, I would bet 100-to-1 on it having a bureaucratic rather than technical basis.

  • This does sound like a screw up, but having worked on a rebuild at a 40 year old Paper Mill earlier in my career I have seen what can happen to documentation over that period of time so I’m inclined to give some grace without knowing all the details.

    We did what site surveys we could, then redrew the drawings to give us a datum and designed the rebuild. Then we arrived on site and all hell broke lose. Getting the old equipment off site took almost twice as long as expected, then we found a bunch of stuff that wasn’t in original drawings and couldn’t be seen when the old stuff was in situe.

    The long and short of it; a two week job lasted 55 days – which when you’re trying to get a plant back into production is bag for you, the customer and the employees there who were sent home until the mill could restart.

    There are millions of them in the world, and they all have a similar design.

    Similar, maybe, but not close enough, and if you’re working on something that has to work pretty much 24/7 for another 40 years it’s a pretty significant piece of work.

    The issue often isn’t the fabrication, you’re right about that being easy, it’s getting accurate information on what you’re fabricating.

    My suspicion is that the original drawings either went walk about or got binned when the original supplier went under/take over etc… so they didn’t have a clue about what needed fabricating until they’d started dismantling stuff.

    9 months sounds enough to have a bureaucratic edge, but I suspect that the people who put it in originally didn’t think about it lasting this long and expected it to be replaced completely.

    Not dis-similar to the problems a lot of Bridges in the US are facing now they’re hitting their 50s.

  • Kevin Jaeger


    There is no way OS/2 will run on a modern motherboard. In addition there is no way you can make your own motherboard (even with CAD) so its ebay again. Even with that marvellous website sometimes you have to wait a month or so for the correct motherboard to go on sale.

    I should note that while you can’t make your own motherboard you can run VMWare on a modern computer and create a virtual machine that OS/2 can run on. It has become a fairly common way to run no longer supported software.