Monthly Archives: June 2014

General Electric to buy Alstom’s energy business for $17bn

The Board of French engineering company, Alstom has given the green light to US energy giant General Electric to purchase its energy business at a price of $17bn. In order to protect the country’s interests and facilitate the deal, the French government will purchase a 20% stake in Alstom from its main shareholder, Bouygues.

Siemens and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries also submitted acquisition proposals, but General Electric’s proposal won unanimous approval from Alstom directors. General Electric will now acquire Alstom’s power grid business, renewable operations, and nuclear steam turbines to form three joint ventures. In doing so, it hopes to open up its operations in China and Africa.

Conversely, General Electric (GE) is to sell its railway signal business to Alstom, who are the manufacturers of France’s TGV high speed trains. The deal is expected to close in 2015.

General Electric’s Chairman and CEO, Jeff Immelt said of the deal: “We will now move to the next phase of the Alstom alliance. We look forward to working with the Alstom team to make a globally competitive power and grid enterprise. We also look forward to working with the French government, employees and shareholders of Alstom. As we have said, this is good for France, GE and Alstom.”

According to a Reuters report, the two companies already have history. In Alstom’s home town of Belfort, 2,500 of its employees have worked for more than a decade ‘building electrical turbines just a few dozen metres away from a GE plant, whose workers they meet each day at lunchtime in a shared canteen’.

The article continues: “GE’s history in Belfort stretches back even further, to 1928, when one of its subsidiaries, Thomson-Houston, merged with the Socieate Alsacienne de Construction Mecanique to form Alssthom, then spelled with an ‘h’”.

Written by Gail Taylor

Edinburgh’s new trams on track at last!

Lesley Hinds, transport convener for Edinburgh City Council discusses the lessons to be learned from one of Scotland’s most controversial – and delayed – new public transport projects. The city’s new tram system finally opened three years late on 31 May 2014 and is now operating between York Place in the city centre and Edinburgh Airport.

Credit: Edinburgh Trams One of Edinburgh's 27 new trams makes its inaugural journey. Each cost around £2 million.

Credit: Edinburgh Trams
One of Edinburgh’s 27 new trams makes its inaugural journey. Each cost around £2 million.

Beset with disruption, bitter disputes, and angry traders, the project was not only late but came in at double the budget and with only half the originally planned network being realised. So great has been the outcry for answers as to what went wrong that last week Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, ordered a judge-led inquiry to investigate.

In the meantime we spoke to Councillor Lesley Hinds, who shared her personal views, not only on what went wrong, but how in the past two years the ailing project has been dramatically turned around. Some of her insights are gold dust to other cities thinking of commissioning a new tram system whilst avoiding the same pitfalls.

To start with, as is so often the case, the news isn’t all bad. Cllr Hinds reports that in their first week on the tracks, the new trams have attracted some 130,000 passengers. On one day alone 27,000 people used the new transport system (although admittedly it was partly down to boy band, One Direction, performing in town).

Credit: Edinburgh Trams Crowds throng to be aboard the first tram journey.

Credit: Edinburgh Trams
Crowds throng to be aboard the first tram journey.

Edinburgh’s tram system was granted funding by the Scottish Parliament to the tune of £500 million in 2007. The City Council formed an arms-length company called Transport in Edinburgh (TIE) to manage the project. TIE then appointed Bilfinger Berger/Siemens as main contractor.

Off the rails

Things soon went badly wrong and a protracted and entrenched dispute arose between the two. At one point, the roads were up and the contractor’s tools were down, while local businesses complained of resulting financial losses and even closure.

We asked Cllr Hinds what caused the problems. “In my personal opinion there were three reasons. The first and main one was the contract [between TIE and Bilfinger Berger/Siemens] which I believe was flawed. It was not detailed enough.

“In my experience, with any large project, if you want to ensure its success, all the details must be sorted out, everything must be tied down, before you sign a contract with any contractor. What happened in this case is that the contract then started to change after it had been signed. So I think there are many lessons to be learned from that.”

Cllr Hinds cites political conflict as the second reason, as at that time local government was a coalition between Liberal Democrats who were pro the Edinburgh tram project, and the SNP who were against. This, she feels, meant that no-one had outright control.

And it didn’t stop at local level. Cllr Hinds continues, “Thirdly, there was a change in administration of the Scottish government where the SNP came into minority control following a vote. Labour, Conservative, Lib Dems, and Greens voted to approve the £500 million to be spent on the Edinburgh trams, carried against the minority SNP administration. As a result, the Scottish government then withdrew the Transport Scotland government agency’s experts and advisors from the project. So what you had was the government signing off the money but then having no direct supervision or input.”

A change in approach

After all the stalling, the project did finally gather steam over the past two years. We asked Cllr Hinds how and why this happened, and, unsurprisingly, it all came down to improved communication. “About two years ago [around the same time Cllr Hinds became the new transport convener] a new chief executive, Sue Bruce, came into the council as a new appointment. One of the tasks she was given by all the councillors was obviously to sort out the tram project, which had come to a total impasse.

“She convened a meeting. Key councillors and the contractor sat down together for at least a week and they came up with a proposal that they both signed up for. That mediation has led to a very, very structured process of any decision-making or dealing any disputes on either side. If there’s a dispute there is a clear way of taking it through process at regular twice-weekly meetings. It stops things festering. It’s put on the table and gets resolved.”

Two years ago, Cllr Hinds was given a revised budget that raised the figure to £776 million* – which has been kept to – and a revised schedule to open the tramline in summer 2014. As she points out, they’ve managed to open slightly earlier, and she credits the strict structure and process they now work within for this.

tran-route

Credit: Edinburgh Trams
Route map

Looking forwards

And what of the retailers and businesses that suffered along the way? Might things start to improve for them now? Cllr Hinds says, “Yes. There is evidence that people are already starting to come back into the city centre. Even those that didn’t want the tram initially are thinking that now it’s here they’ll use it and just get on with it and seem reasonably happy.

“However, you can’t underestimate the damage done to the reputation of the city of Edinburgh.” To help address this, a £1 million campaign named ‘This is Edinburgh’ was launched last February to promote the city’s attractions and encourage people back into the centre after the tram disruption.

Finally, we asked Cllr Hinds what her advice would be to other cities considering a tram system. She replies, “Listen to others who have done it, find out and learn. There will always be disruption when you’re putting in an on-road system, so think about ways of mitigating that and keeping businesses and people on-side. And bear in mind, some people will just be anti-tram whatever happens, although once they’re up and running that can change completely!” Nice in the south of France and Ireland’s capital, Dublin are both good examples of this particular phenomenon.

“But probably the most important point, to me, is the contract – communication between contractor and client – and to get all-party support if possible. Manchester didn’t face anything like the challenges we’ve had to because they had backing from all sides from the outset.”

* Edinburgh City Council financed the additional funds through a loan it will pay interest on for the next 30 years. Taking into account this interest, the total cost of the tram project is estimated to be nearer £1 billion.

Written by Gail Taylor

Written By admin 
June 10, 2014 12:04 pm
Posted In Rail

Could the UK’s first carbon-fibre bridge spark a revolution in civil construction materials?

please note: this is a representative image of a composite footbridge, not the actual bridge being installed.

Please note: this is a representative image of a composite footbridge, not the actual bridge being installed.

 

In an exclusive interview in the UK’s national newspaper, The Telegraph, Chris Hendy, head of bridge design for WS Atkins, reveals details of what is believed to be the first ever bridge in the country to be constructed using carbon-fibre.

The 8-metre bridge will be installed later this year in the rural village of Frampton Cotterell in Gloucestershire and is to span a drainage channel. Further details about the bridge will be released once it is in place and open to the public.

Hendy tells The Telegraph that “while the composite materials – which are made from layers of compounds bound together in moulds with resin to produce extremely strong but light materials – have been around in other sectors for some time” – namely in aerospace and Formula 1 – “they have yet to make the leap into civil construction”.

The article explains that although using composites can be almost twice as expensive as traditional bridge materials, they do not corrode as concrete and steel do, so maintenance costs over the lifespan of the bridge are dramatically reduced. According to The Telegraph, western Europe spends 5 billion euros (£4.1 billion) every year on fixing corrosion on infrastructure.

Hendy goes on to say that composite technology could also cross into other new areas such as non-rusting oil rigs. However, he concludes the interview by stating, “We’re not saying make the whole world out of composites. Just where it’s most efficient.”

Written By admin 
June 05, 2014 14:22 pm
Posted In Bridges

Could Google’s latest driverless vehicle transform our obsession with car ownership?

Google has last week unveiled the latest incarnation of the driverless cars it has been developing for the past four years. Unlike earlier versions, pedals and steering wheels have been eliminated altogether in the new pod-like prototype cars, so the driver is no longer able to take control manually (apparently a good thing as we tend to make bad decisions in emergency situations, according to Google’s test experiences).

The vehicles – which will run on electricity – are simply equipped with a button for ‘start’ and a panic button for ‘stop’. Sensors with 360-degree vision and advanced robotic engineering do the rest, theoretically far more reliably and safely than humans.

And rather than having to own a car, people would simply summon a driverless car-cum-taxi via a mobile phone app. All extraordinary stuff: bad news for parking wardens, very good news for hospital emergency departments and the environment. It also promises greater economy.

Artistic sketch of what Google's vehicle prototype will look like

Artistic sketch of what Google’s vehicle prototype will look like

The New York Times cites some interesting research showing that “Manhattan’s 13,000 taxis made 470,000 trips a day. Their average speed was 10 to 11 mph, carrying an average of 1.4 passengers per trip with an average wait time of five minutes.

“In comparison, the report said, it is possible for a futuristic robot fleet of 9,000 shared automated vehicles hailed by smartphone to match that capacity with a wait time of less than one minute.

“Assuming a 15 per cent profit, the current cost of a taxi service would be about $4 per trip mile, while in contrast, it was estimated, a Manhattan-based driverless vehicle fleet would cost about 50 cents per mile.”

The UK’s national Sunday newspaper, The Observer, also makes some important points, stating, “Google is, par excellence…an engineering company. And engineers dislike the untidy irrationality of real life.”

The article describes the status quo of one car per owner, the expense, the space required – not to mention the danger to life and the environment – saying that “engineers see governments and local authorities driven to distraction, if not to bankruptcy, by the costs of providing roads and infrastructure to support our motoring habit…and they think: this is nuts. So, say Google’s engineers, why don’t we stop thinking of cars as possessions and start thinking of them as services?”

Written By admin 
June 05, 2014 11:32 am
Posted In Road/Traffic