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Why is history important to today's engineer?

OK, this sounds like one of those essay questions we used to see on exams. But there is a reason why I bring it up. The other day, a colleague sent me a link to this web site:

It seems that there was a report of water entering a tunnel used by Network Rail in London. This line used to be know as the Great Northern and City and it was built at the turn of the last century as a tube line for use by full sized mainline equipment. After operating for many years as part of the London Underground, the line was transferred to the then British Rail and was connected to the mainline railroad system. Anyway, a non revenue train was directed to investigate the report of water infiltration and it proceeded into the tunnel, where it soon found two 13 3/4 inch steel augers, each some 6 feet 7 inches long and weighing close to 265 lbs., lying on the tracks. These augers, being used to bore holes for building foundation piles, had penetrated the cast iron tunnel lining. Luckily, the boring operation was quickly stopped and no significant damage was done.

The investigation revealed that the tunnels were not shown on readily available maps-the Ordnance Surveys- and a request to London Underground, the primary operator of underground lines-did not indicate that there was any London Underground tunnel in the area of the construction site. Of course, further investigation revealed documents that did indicate the presence of the tunnel, however, additional digging-no pun intended-would have been required to locate the documents that would have shown the presence of a railroad tunnel directly under the building site.

Luck was with everyone that day, since the boring operation occured during the off peak and there was no train in the tunnel when the augers came through. Now imagine what could have happened if such an auger penetrated the tunnel while a train was present-especially during the peak hours? Further, of the planned 39 piles to be used to support the building, 19 would have penetrated the tunnel. Since the tunnel was not used on weekends, there was every possibility that additional holes could have been made, and pilings driven.

The recommendation of the accident board was to require that Network Rail be involved in future development work in the London area, and that Network Rail provide information on its tunnels and related infrastructure to London Underground and various other agencies.

Of course, had any one knowledgeable about the railway history of London could have noticed that the proposed building site happened to be located above an active railway tunnel, then all of this could have been avoided, resulting in fewer costs for all involved.

Having worked for a railroad whose history dates back to the 1840's, I realized early on that knowledge of the railroad's history was very important to proper planning for any major construction efforts. It is amazing what items can be found when you start to excavate near the right of way. In my career, I was present when the following items were uncovered;a turntable, bridge abutments, forgotten, but still in use duct banks, elevated railroad foundations, wooden trestles that were backfilled with rip rap and then covered by soil, and an abandoned coal bunker. All of these surprises affected work progress and some resulted in expensive change orders. Now, not everyone of these could have been readily identified based upon a cursory search of the valuation maps, knowledge of the history of the railroad and a more dedicated search in the archives could have identified most of these 'SURPRISES".

Know the history does not mean that an individual must know exactly where and what was located, but rather having enough knowledge to raise questions. So if one was familiar with the past, the knowledge that a certain location was once used as a change over point from electric locomotives to steam locomotives should be an indication that servicing facilities for the locomotives would be nearby, and that large structures could be present. That knowledge should then trigger a more thorough records search as well as a request to the designer that additional soil borings or even test excavations should be performed before final design was completed.

Curiosity should be encouraged. Knowledge of why something was done can be of immeasurable help when it comes time to do construction in an area. Look at old maps, many of which show original topography and water courses. In the NYC area, a series of post Civil war maps of Manhattan island topography were prepared by a one armed ex Union General named Egbert Viele. These show the many water courses and original topography that in many cases was obliterated by the urbanization of Manhattan. A perusal of these maps helped to identify a long lost water course and its associated quicksand when a new substation was being designed. This finding resulted in a change in the foundation design before construction started.

I like to collect railroad history books. Not only do I find them interesting, I also know that sometimes some rather arcane information may make a critical difference in the design and construction of a project. A $60.00 investment can sometimes lead to a multi-million dollar savings. Of course, it would be nice if the multi-million dollar savings could end up in my pocket, but alas, that cannot be. But it does help me feel better about my contribution to the successful completion of a project and hopefully to more business in the future. I can live with that!

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