Infrastructure in 2014: Rail return to growth
Ground engineering is generally the first sector to recover after a recession, and if the rise in demand seen in the foundations industry this year is anything to go by, the future looks positive for the whole of construction in 2014. While major infrastructure investment is yet to make a significant impression on the ground, there has been significant growth in rail upgrades, retail, housing and education.
“This year has been a record one within our own business for rail, and there is a considerable amount of work in the sector,” says Roger Bullivant sales and marketing director John Patch. “It is a challenging market to work in, in terms of regulations and demand, but it suits the way Bullivant, and other SME contractors, work with lots of small projects and the ability to rapidly mobilise plant and people.
“We’re probably more nimble than the larger players in the market, and as a result we have benefited more from this rail investment,” he explains.
Schemes currently keeping the piling sector busy involve a variety of upgrades and improvements including platform extensions, footbridges at level crossings and “Access for All” lifts from platforms to bridges.
“Planning is the key to success on these schemes,” explains Patch. “Plant and materials are often ‘marooned’ on an island platform, so everything has to be ready and waiting at the start of the contract. Price does matter to rail clients but the over-riding issue is programme and logistics.”
Patch reports that customer expectations are much higher in terms of programming than they have been in the past. “The lead in to the start date is less flexible, which is leading to greater focus on efficiency and capability,” he says.
“They also have higher expectations in terms of safety too - most clients want more than just rules and regulations and want to see that a company is engaging in behavioural safety initiatives. This extends to the attitude to drugs, alcohol and the mindset of employees.”
“This year has been a record one within our own business for rail, and there is a considerable amount of work in the sector”
John Patch, Roger Bullivant
According to Patch, dealing with other trades is becoming more of an issue for the piling industry as clients try to squeeze programmes. “On a recent project our site team was being asked to carry out piling work while demolition and steel frame erection was being carried out almost overhead,” he says. “We stopped the work because the risks were too high, but we managed to work with the project manager to re-plan the work and actually we were able to save two days on site.”
Patch says that collaboration from the outset is becoming more common, and he has seen a rise in more formal pre-start meetings. “It feels like piling is seen less as a subcontracting industry, and we are being treated more as a partner,” he says. “Our contracts managers are spending more time setting up schemes, and as a result need to spend less time dealing with issues once the work is underway. The ground-related risks associated with piling still exist, but there is definitely more focus on the end result and the solution to reach that point.”
According to Patch, this liaison is enabling the piling industry to get more involved with planning of the phasing of schemes. “Often with rail projects the phasing can seem illogical on paper due to accessibility issues, but there is still potential to improve the planning if we are involved early enough,” he says.
Another sector where Patch reports growth is house building. “There has been a significant upturn this year and we expect it to continue into 2014,” he says. “We are seeing housing developers working on more challenging sites, which means that they are calling for more ground engineering skills than they have in recent years, with a rise in demand for small retaining walls to deal with sloping sites, for example.
“It is a challenging market to work in as the infrastructure costs are wrapped up in the house sale prices, which are often pre-determined before the design work is done or priced,” he continues.
Patch is also reporting growth potential in the retail market, with the major players investing in new stores. “We expect this market to grow over the next few years, and you only have to look at the population growth forecast to realise that these supermarkets won’t lead to market saturation but will actually be needed,” he says.
Population growth is also driving another growth area for the piling and foundations sector schools. “We have seen a rise in demand for school extensions and new build schools this year, and that is likely to continue into 2014 and beyond,” says Patch. “The population statistics forecast suggest that this could be a growth market over the next five to 10 years.”
The regional make-up of the foundations market has shifted during 2013 to be less London-centric than it was at the peak of the recession. “The North West is one of our busiest markets at the moment, with investment being driven by government and EU funding,” says Patch. “It is also an interesting market as the region has a larger proportion of challenging ground than other parts of the UK.”
Although Patch is positive about growing demand for foundation solutions, he does have concerns about how this demand will be met by the industry. “We have a problem ahead in terms of skills, and it is something that we need to grasp,” he says, adding that the company has taken on four graduates and six apprentices over the last 12 months - a similar level to other firms in the sector. “The calibre and enthusiasm of these recruits is good, but we
need to build up at all levels, and where the gap exists is in the engineers with eight to 12 years’ experience,” says Patch.
“This skills gap is likely to be a problem for a long time, and will track through the industry for years to come. We need to prevent there being a second skills gap.”
“We have a problem ahead in terms of skills, and it is something that we need to grasp”
John Patch, Roger Bullivant
Nonetheless, Patch says there is a reluctance to invest in new people, and the industry feels it has to tie people in, in order to get the benefit of any investment it makes. He cites a recent survey of civil engineering students from Nottingham University that showed that 50% of graduates went into other sectors. “The problem-solving skills and analytical thinking of civil engineering graduates means that they are attractive to other sectors,” he says. “Rather than trying to change that, we need to get more people to take civil engineering courses in the first place so that the 50% that do come into the industry represent a higher number.
“We need to be making more of a formalised effort to talk to school children before they start making GCSE choices to open their eyes up to the opportunities in all engineering subjects, not just civil engineering,” says Patch.
“There are around 4,000 secondary schools in the UK, and with 55,000 ICE members, surely we could give up an hour a year each to speak to the next generation of potential engineers?”
In summary, Patch expects 2014 to be a good year for the piling sector but also challenging in terms of dealing with resource management and technical demand related to the upturn.