Britain, the land of Brunel, once had a towering reputation for engineering. Our buildings, trains, planes, ships â€” even our sewerage systems â€” were the best in the world. So why is our best work now done overseas?
The old Mallard pub next to the brick viaduct in the High Street at Little Bytham in Lincolnshire is now a private house. Passengers on the east-coast main railway line, on days unaffected by derailments, signal failures or "operating difficulties", will see it as a flash of pale stone. On Sunday, July 3, 1938, when the pub still bore its earlier name of the Green Man, Joe Duddington would not have seen it at all.
Behind him, rocking so violently that it broke the crockery, careered a 240-ton, seven-coach passenger train of the London North Eastern Railway. He was in no mood to admire the scenery. Beside him on the footplate of Mallard, a 103-ton streamliner designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, the fireman Tommy Bray stoked like Vulcan, hurling coal and swallowing beer with equal vigour.
Ahead of them, glowing cinders streamed from the funnels and looped back around the instrument-packed "dynamometer car" that was recording their progress. Eyes were fixed to dials and gauges, registering every flicker. Not long out of Grantham, they had passed Stoke summit at 85mph. Now the needle in Duddington's cab stood at 122mph. A world record, but still the adrenaline pumped.
"'Go on, old girl,' I thought. 'We can do better than this.'" And they did. To the astonishment, and very possibly terror, of anyone in the vicinity of the pub, the train tore across Little Bytham viaduct at 123mph. A mile and a half further on, while the smoke still hung over the village, they gained another 3mph before Duddington, flat cap anarchically swivelled backwards, had to obey his manager's instructions to ease off for a bend. Even now, 65 years later, their top speed of 126mph still stands as the fastest ever achieved by steam.
Scroll forward to Tuesday, September 16, 2003. After a long catalogue of disaster â€“ the Paddington, Hatfield, Selby and Potters Bar crashes, and the public execution of Railtrack â€“ it was a much-needed good-news day for the railway. At Waterloo station, Tony Blair was preparing to open the UK's first stretch of high-speed line â€“ a 46-mile section of the Channel-tunnel link between Folkestone and north Kent â€“ that would allow Eurostar trains on British soil, if only for a few minutes, to nudge up to the continental standard of 186mph.
On BBC radio that morning, the grey man's grey man, the transport secretary Alistair Darling, had come to the microphone to lead the nation's cheers. The importance of the high-speed rail link, he announced, was that it would deliver "a full range of options". Well, we could live without oratory â€“ at least we'd get some engineering.
Shortly afterwards came news that an intercity express crawling out of King's Cross had come upon an overnight track repair by the maintenance contractor Jarvis. The resulting derailment blocked six platforms and condemned the east-coast main line â€“ no stranger to disruption after Hatfield and Potters Bar â€“ to another two days of paralysis. Full range of options: take the car or stay at home.
Little Bytham viaduct fell silent; good news was buried under bad. Also falling silent, or at least a little quieter, were the skies over west London. Despite Â£17m worth of modifications designed to prevent a repetition of the catastrophic Paris crash in July 2000, and a Â£14m internal refit, Concorde could no longer earn its keep. At the end of October, after more than 30 years' service, the world's most glamorous aeroplane â€“ the first and only supersonic airliner â€“ landed from its last commercial flight, and yet another emblem of British genius taxied towards the museum.
The era of le bang sonique is now as remote as the age of steam, more in tune with the technological adventurism of the 19th century than with the accountancy-run, pocket-size pragmatism of the 21st.
One leading British engineer, asked to nominate the most iconic structure built in Britain since 1945, unhesitatingly chose Skylon â€“ the short-lived cigar-shaped steel tower, more sculpture than building, that was erected on London's South Bank for the duration of the Festival of Britain in 1951. Even after an absence of more than 50 years, it still grips the imagination. The same is true, even more emphatically, of Joseph Paxton's miraculous Crystal Palace â€“ built in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851, removed a year later to the area of south London that still bears its name, and subsequently destroyed by fire in 1936. Even in the minds of people who know it only from pictures, it stands as a memorial to lost momentum: possibly the last truly world-class public building erected in Britain.
We have lost even our fabled ability to mark the passage of time. All we got for the millennium was the embarrassment of the Dome, a couple of breathtaking underground stations on London's new Jubilee line, elegant new footbridges across the Thames and the Tyne, an (admittedly stupendous) glass roof for the British Museum courtyard, the Eden Project and â€“ against opposition (almost always a good sign) â€“ the glorious London Eye.
Even buying a Rolls-Royce now looks more like an ironic, post-imperial gesture than a real endorsement of British superiority â€“ a two-fingered salute to the new Germanic ideal of pared-down mechanical efficiency. The rest of the world meanwhile extends its catalogue of wonders. The Pompidou Centre, the Dutch Sea Barrier, the Itaipu Dam, Sydney Opera House, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Kansai International Airport, the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge... all miracles of construction in which architectural vision meets engineering genius; all "world structures" transcending their locations and feeding the imagination. True, we have the Channel tunnel â€“ an authentic wonder of the age â€“ but it connects to a railway system that testifies to its glorious, pioneering past only in terms of its superannuated state of dereliction.
Who, now, could name a famous British engineer? Where are the modern counterparts of George and Robert Stephenson, Thomas Telford and the Brunels â€“ miracle-workers whose gifts to the world were on an almost biblical scale, controlling the uncontrollable? Words like Pride and Enterprise still attach themselves to the names of ferries and pleasure boats, but where now do they leave their mark on the national fabric? Could it be that something, somewhere, has gone just a little wrong?
The answer is implicit in a modern engineer's verdict on Isambard Kingdom Brunel. By this man's account, the creator of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Great Western Railway and the SS Great Britain was a failure because "his backers didn't do well financially. The test of a good engineer is to build things to cost". Thus, by calculation, is Brunel made inferior to designers of bus shelters, widgets and prefabs.
On one point, at least, the critic is right: attitudes to risk have changed. During the drilling of the world's first underwater tunnel, beneath the Thames between Rotherhithe and Wapping in 1828, Isambard himself had to swim for his life when water burst into the workings and two workmen were drowned. Such journeys into the unknown were commercially driven â€“ nobody in those days was competing for design awards â€“ but it was accepted that risks, physical as well as financial, were as unavoidable as the navvies' blisters.
Remainder of article