Feedback: your letters

Topics under discussion in this issue include: transport for the masses; the UK's forgotten mining machinery manufacturers; seaside erosion; IT failures and more.

Transport for the masses

While E&T sometimes gets carried away with boutique vehicles like the Acabion featured in Vol 3, #12 ('Rocket on Wheels'), it does not seem to address the more pressing 'hypermarket of transport'.

Politicians need to be advised by practical people to solve problems. Why do governments still allow gas-guzzlers to be manufactured, which not only use a lot of fuel but are responsible for more pollution? Why is short-range air travel getting cheaper, so that every football hooligan can contribute to fuel wastage and pollution?

It is without doubt that electric rail travel is the transport of the future. While TGV, monorail, evacuated tunnels and biogas-driven trains are the topics in the media, why is there so little interest and investment into better organised, affordable systems for mass transportation? A rail system that runs on time, above or below ground, and allows passengers to change from one train to the next with a minimum of timewastage. Would it not be more sensible to concentrate first on organisation and later on speed?

A well-organised, fast and reliable rail service should be used for goods transport with handling facilities at stations. Only the last few miles to their destination should lorries be used. Hypermarkets, outside cities, could have rail terminals for both goods and passengers.

Only governments can knock sense into carmakers. Any modern engine of 2000cc could propel a four seater, 3000cc for mini buses and all vehicles should have the same mechanical parts to make them easier to maintain and cheaper to buy. The insides could be fitted out with frills to make them different. Manufacturers should develop vehicles, and every five years the best should be accepted. A motor vehicle should work reliably for at least eight to ten years.

To pull everything out of the ground - oil and metal - without good reason, shows the incredible wastefulness and lack of logic of the consumer society. With our traffic conditions, driving is no fun and a car is only a tin box on wheels.

Vehicles running on rails last many times longer than cars and with better controls could have lower accident rates. Electricity can be generated and distributed more efficiently than liquid fuels and battery charging is not the most efficent use for electricity.

George Corvin, Nairobi, Kenya

Glasgow focus for UK space

In 'No Room for Space' in the Vol 3 #14 issue of E&T, Mark Williamson suggests some creative ideas for a more user-oriented space exhibition than this year's aviation-dominated Farnborough International Air Show. He also criticises the lack of space presence at Farnborough, citing the absence of a space pavilion, as had featured at the two previous shows in 2004 and 2006, as evidence of a lack of interest by space industry companies.

Although I speak here only for Astrium, who had a considerable space presence on the EADS stand in terms of display material and specialist staff, I am confident that the main reason the space industry may have taken a lower profile at Farnborough this year was the International Astronautical Congress held in Glasgow from 29 September to 3 October.

The IAC is the premier annual event for the international space community, and covers all aspects of space technology. We are especially privileged this year as the last time this event visited the UK was back in 1987.

Clearly, companies and institutions must always choose wisely how to spend their marketing and event budgets, and this year, led by the European Space Agency, the majority view was that Glasgow would be the focus in the UK. Whether we will see a space pavilion at Farnborough in 2010 remains to be seen, but hopefully the Space Pavilion will be back.

What is certain is that the UK space community understands, and is focused on connecting applications of space to its users, and very much sees IAC Glasgow as UK's space-dedicated 'Ideal Space Show'.

Richard Peckham, Astrium Limited

A forgotten UK industry

WM Ritchie's letter in Vol 3 #14 of E&T throws light on rather hidden aspects of the coal mining industry in Britian - the independent mining machinery manufacturers.

From the 1860s to the late 1950s, the output of coal in Britain was around 300t per year per man employed. Following a prodigious investment in electrification, mechanisation and automoation, output per man employed had doubled to 600t per year by 1985.

There were some 200 mining machinery manufacturers, mostly small and highly specialised although some were well-known firms who supplied major plants. The smaller firms, in particular, had supplied the collieries but exported little; however, by the end of this drive they became substantial exporters much to the benefit of the UK.

These developments involved mining engineers, the efficient mining electrical and mining mechanical engineers, the mining machinery manufacturers, HM Mines Inspectorate and Laboratories, and the NCB's Mining Research and Development Establishment with its prodigious facilities for testing, demonstration and development.

Doubtless, these improvements would have come about without the Establishment, but it would not have been handled so efficaciously and been appreciated around the world.

Mr HM Hughes CEng FIET, Burton upon Trent

Running on coal

In reply to Mr Alan E Lott ('Who Remembers Coalene?', Letters, Vol 3 #13). The first job I ever had was at a plant where Coalene was made. I started there in 1959. The plant was the Derbyshire Coalite & Chemical Company at Bolsover. Coalene was on sale at the gates. Production stopped a few years later when subsidies on petrol produced from coal came to an end.

John Walton CEng MIET, Stockholm

Wave goodbye to erosion

'Beside the Seaside' (E&T, Vol 3 #15) identifies coastal erosion as a serious threat to many coastal communities. This is an opportunity for wave power. One of the challenges that wave power faces is capital cost, but this could be paid for by the benefits of coastal defence since wave power generation will absorb much of the destructive power of the waves and put it to good use.

Another advantage of this approach is that coastal communities already have a grid connection and this could be used to connect the wave power generation, reducing electrical connection costs.

Chris Bright, Nottingham

IT failures

I was interested in Ian Richmond's article 'On time, on target' in Vol 3 #16 of E&T about ways of bringing in IT projects on schedule. I think the failure statistics of achieving this performance are unlikely to improve. The major problem with very large projects is that little experience gained on previous projects can be read across to new ones. The long timescale of these projects mean that both the technology and the staff will be significantly different.

The rate of change of technology, hardware and software, is particularly rapid in advanced systems. Competitive bidding normally demands offering at least the latest technology, or even bidding forward the expected improvements. The key staff on previous projects are likely to be either not available, still locked-in to another project, moved to another business or now promoted to a different role

The fundamentals are just what they were when the previous project was under bid. People with limited experience of the responsib-ilities they will carry provide estimates for innovative designs using technologies of which they have little detailed knowledge. Competitive pressures and staff ambitions to be successful in winning the contract will always make the bid optimistic rather than cautious. The situation is aggravated by similar problems existing with the customer's assessment team.

These are facts of life which need the same recognition as is given to the project processes.

R Thompson FIET, Lymington

Why, robot?

In Vol 3 #15's 'Eccentric Engineer' column, Justin Pollard refers to the use in South Africa of the term 'robots' to describe traffic lights.

The origin of this is believed to be that at the time of the introduction of the first traffic light systems into South Africa, the populace were already familiar with the sight of a police officer standing in the middle of a busy intersection, waving his arms around in an attempt to produce some order out of the chaos of the conflicting traffic streams.

A writer, describing this new-fangled gadget, then coined the expression 'robot policeman' to name it, and that name (in a slightly contracted form) has just stuck in local usage.

Tony Fisher, MIET, South Africa

I have never been to South Africa, but I seem to recall that the same term was used to describe traffic lights in Kingston upon Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire, at least up until the 1960s.

Who used it first, I wonder?

Michael Twitchett FIET, via email
BBC at Savoy Place

The Library and Archives column of the August 2008 issue of IET Member News refers to the development of the BBC at the Institution's Savoy Place building in London from 1923 until 1932 and recommends the free booklet 'The BBC at Savoy Place'.

That suggests (inter alia) a book by my brother, Brian Hennessy, 'Savoy Hill: The Early Years of British Broadcasting'. However, this is now superseded by his later and more extensive book (to which I gave the finishing touches): 'The Emergence of Broadcasting in Britain', which covers the years from 1912. Much of this refers to the years at Savoy Place and members can find a 2,000 word introduction on the website: [new window].

In preparing his book, Brian received a great deal of help from IET staff and much of his original research covering these important years at the IET is still unpublished. This ought not to be lost and I should be happy to pass the material, in its raw state, to the research department of an interested university.

My email address is

John Hennessy FIET, Exmouth

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