High spirits at the annual BTS Dinner 11 May 2017

Shani Wallis, TunnelTalk

What do you call a gathering of tunnellers? Not sure there is a collective noun to describe the occasion but Friday evening, 5 May 2017, in the usual BTS Dinner venue in London was certainly one of them. Spirits were high, the mood was buoyant and the din in the meet-and-great reception hit a crowded crescendo as the room filled to capacity.

High spirits and enjoyments at the BTS 2017 Dinner
High spirits and enjoyments at the BTS 2017 Dinner

More than 800 guests gathered for the annual black-tie gala dinner at The Brewery this year and a great time was had by all. TunnelTalk sponsored the official photographer for the event again and Matt Chung has done a sterling job managing to capture photos of near all the guests and hosted tables. A gallery of all the photos taken on the evening is now available and orders can be placed for your favourites.

Looking into the crowd of revellers, it was noticeable that the number of ladies at the Dinner had again increased this year. Where in the past, the annual dinner was intended as an occasion for engineers to introduce their wives and partners to colleagues and friends in the industry, it has over time become more of a corporate event with (for shame) there being ‘men only tables’!

While engineers and industry professionals do continue to invite their wives and partners to the event, the growing number of ladies bringing balance to the proceedings, are increasingly industry engineers and professionals in their own right, and escorting their husbands and partners. All the major firms and projects had lady engineers and professionals at their tables and indeed there was a table only of ladies!

BTS Chair Mark Leggett (standing right) hosted Past Chair Roger Bridge (seated right), speaker Alfie Moore (standing third from left), Harding Prize winner Omar Mohammed (standing middle) and MC John Scholey (standing left) and partners to the top table
BTS Chair Mark Leggett (standing right) hosted Past Chair Roger Bridge (seated right), speaker Alfie Moore (standing third from left), Harding Prize winner Omar Mohammed (standing middle) and MC John Scholey (standing left) and partners to the top table

The move indicates the growing attraction of engineering and construction to women and in particular to the underground design and construction industry. TunnelTalk was hosted again this year on the Bekaert Maccaferri Underground Solutions table and three of the ladies at the table were professionals in the industry.

After a wonderful meal, as always prepared and expertly managed by the kitchen and serving staff of The Brewery, Master of Ceremonies John Scholey called the room to order and BTS Chair Mark Leggett addressed the attentive audience.

During his speech, Leggett made several important announcements.

First, he welcomed to the top table Past BTS Chair Roger Bridge who is making a remarkable recovery after suffering a serious health issue last year. Bridge was welcomed back to the tunnelling family with great applause.

Also at the top table was Omar Mohammed of Transport for London, winner of the BTS-sponsored young professionals’ Harold Harding Prize for his paper concerning the interception of deep pile foundations at the Bank Station upgrade project in London. Three excellent papers were presented at the April BTS meeting for the competition with Mohamad Fahed of Mott MacDonald and Jennifer Henderson also of Transport for London providing very close contention.

Also from the podium, Leggett announced that Josie Gallagher, who was at the event and hosting a company table of guests, is the recipient of the 2017 BTS James Clark Medal award for his services to the tunnelling industry. Gallagher is a leading personality in the tunnelling industry having been involved on numerous UK and international projects during his 48-year tunnelling career.

A special welcome was extended to the Tunnelling Association of Nigeria lead by Chair Abidemi Agwor (left)
A special welcome was extended to the Tunnelling Association of Nigeria lead by Chair Abidemi Agwor (left)

Leggett also welcomed to the gala event special guests from Nigeria. The BTS, and in particular Past Chair Roger Bridge, has supported and provided active assistance to the Nigerian engineers to extablish the Tunnelling Association of Nigeria and advance a body of expertise in Nigeria to progress the many underground infrastructure projects the country needs for its economic advancement. BTS is a founding Member Nation society of the ITA (International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association), which was formed in 1974, and Nigeria, via the newly established Tunnelling Association of Nigeria (TAN) has been welcomed as the 74th Member Nation of the ITA and the Association’s fifth Member Nation in Africa. The next annual General Assembly of the ITA is to be hosted by the World Tunnel Congress in Bergen in Norway from 9 to 15 June 2017 when BTS and TAN will take their seats at the Assembly table of 74 Member Nations.

To close, Leggett invited all to another occasion for tunnellers and partners to socialise – the BTS Summer Soiree. As a more relaxed alternative to the gala dinner, the event is planned for later in the year and will be the second event after a very enjoyable, if under subscribed, initial event last September.

It was back then the MC Scholey who introduced the guest speaker for the evening, comedian Alfie Moore. Well known for his BBC Radio 4 programme It’s a Fair Cop, Moore was a hit with the audience. As an ex-policeman himself, his stories were very funny and not in any way offensive to anyone, unless someone in the crowd was the person in the story about finding a dismembered head and being told by the 999 emergency helpline to keep the victim warm and attempt mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until the emergency services arrive.

BTS Chair Mark Leggett and guest speaker Alfie Moore addressed the attentive dinner crowd

After the speeches and coffees, it was all into networking and connecting with other event guests and professionals – always an interesting mingling. The most remarkable aspect of the BTS gala Dinner, as an indicator of the health of the UK tunnelling industry, is the percentage of the audience and the professionals in the crowd who are internationals based and working the UK and especially from Europe. Engineers working in the UK for European consulting and construction firms, including from Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece among others, must have accounted for more than 25% of the 800-strong gathering and, as the first BTS Dinner since the UK voted to leave the European Union, Brexit was a point of networking conversation.

Perhaps surprisingly, and despite the evident reliance on international and European professionals and suppliers in the UK tunnelling industry, many leading engineers in the network mingling were beginning to admit openly that they did indeed vote in the referendum of last June for Britain to leave the EU.

Perhaps more surprisingly, there seems to be a feeling on both sides of the to- leave-or-not-to-leave debate, that there will be little impact in the tunnelling industry. The industry will operate as per normal. “We will still be able to engage and allow immigration of professionals from Europe as we will have to meet the needs in capacity and expertise and provide for construction and supply competition” said one BTS engineer who admitted to being a voted Brexiter.

Brexit was just one of many topics for networking discussion
Brexit was just one of many topics for networking discussion

Another professional engineer from Germany and working in the UK on bids for the HS2 railway project contracts, said that, for the moment, it is business as usual. “I cannot see a situation any time soon when the internationals working in the UK will be restricted entry. That may change as the process continues, but for the moment we are very busy – too busy to be worrying about what might happen in two years time – except for being successful with our bid and working on the project!”

A guest at our table from Italy, also spoke positively about the UK after Brexit. “The thing about the UK is that it works. You who are here cannot see this, but for us engineers who come to Britain for professional reasons understand how UK works were the same doesn’t happen in other countries of Europe.” In particular, the comment was that “the UK industry is more progressive, more receptive to new innovations, more integrated across the industry from clients, to contractors, to designers, to suppliers, more able and capable of being receptive and welcoming to international professionals. This is not so in France, Italy, Spain or even Germany. It just isn’t as progressive and open. If you speak sensible and logical engineering – even if your English is not very good – the British engineers will listen and provide the opportunity to prove the point and for accepting the technology and advancements into practice. More than any other country, maybe in the world, this is the case in the UK. That is why, in my opinion, the UK will be fine even outside the EU.”

TunnelTalk (seated left) was a guest of Bekaert Maccaferri Underground Solutions as it was for the BTS Dinner 2007 (right) and has been for several others

Interesting thoughts and a topic to follow as the Brexit process continues, and to review at the next BTS annual gala gathering.

A wonderful evening was enjoyed by all and while BTS delegates will congregate again at the WTC/ITA General Assembly and its social gatherings in June in Bergen, BTS will distribute announcements for the venue of the Summer Soiree soon. TunnelTalk looks forward to meeting delegates, friends and colleagues at these and additional industry events.


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