Life Before Rotary: Keith Ross

I come from a railway family, my father, his brother and in the 1940’s two sisters as well his father before him worked for British Railways in the carriage works at Lancing. My father worked at Brighton, then Eastleigh and the family moved to Fareham when I was 8.
When I was 10, my family went on their first foreign holiday to the Tyrol in Austria. We travelled overnight by train and I was captivated. At school the next term my teacher showed the class images of her holiday to the land of the midnight sun, Norway. I became hooked on the idea of travel and in particular to foreign lands.
I am married to Marilyn and have three daughters, one an insurance solicitor for an American law firm in the City, one an interior designer living in Oxford, and one a journalist in Nottingham. Except for a short period after we married, I have lived in Seaford since I was 19.
On graduating from Loughborough University I joined British Rail, a natural choice given my upbringing, and I started in the Bridge Office of Southern Region in Croydon.
My working life had two distinct parts, one as a Bridge Engineer based in Croydon but working all over Southern Region of British Rail, and two, as a Bridge Engineer based in central London for Railtrack and then Network Rail. My travel bug has been satisfied as my work has taken me all over the UK, and to many European capitals, although that was something that I did not envisage when I commenced my working life. In my time on the railway, in addition to Croydon I have worked at 9 London stations: London Bridge, Blackfriars/Holborn Viaduct, Waterloo, Victoria, Paddington, Marylebone, Euston, Kings Cross, Liverpool Street.
I found that I preferred site work, less number crunching, and thus much of my early working life was spent at site. Looking back, it is where things did not go to plan that you remember most, although I have some other memorable moments.
My first site job was at London Bridge for construction of a subway under the lines to Charing Cross and Cannon Street. In preparation for erection of concrete beams to the subway roof, the track had been removed using a steam driven rail mounted crane. The cranes brakes failed and it ran off the tracks and into hole onto the ballast over the brick arches to be demolished. Two diesel engines called up from depot and double hauled crane back onto tracks. The crane was taken back to depot to repair the brakes. For the next possession, the same crane arrived on site to remove the tracks. Again the brakes failed and again two engines hauled the crane back onto the tracks.
Shortly after these two incidents all Southern Region steam driven rail mounted cranes were replaced by new diesel cranes!
For the erection of the concrete beams tapered in plan at Great Suffolk Street also in Southwark, the crane sent to site had a lower capacity than that required. The crane was moved nearer the bridge and pavement. This necessitated that the lorry carrying the beams to be moved onto pavement to lift the beams from the trailer into position. The pavement was not designed for the wheel load from the beams, and water main underneath collapsed. A water fountain sprayed a neat pile of cement due to be used for concrete in joints between beams. The possession was quickly aborted and the temporary bridge reinstated.
I was one of a number of additional staff assisting in the supervision of construction of a new concrete bridge between Canterbury East and Selling over a new A2. The bridge was planned to be slid into position during a weekend possession. After a trial slide, the bridge refused to slide any further - quiet panic. The slide took 10 days.
I and other site team members received a ‘well done’ letter from the Chief Civil Engineer - no significant disruption to Canterbury, there is Canterbury West on the line to Ashford.
In the late 19080’s I supervised works to raise the platform on the fast line at Purley by about 300 mm. Behind the coper, ran an oil filled 33kV cable that provided electrical power to the third rail. The approved method for the concrete slab to the new platform specifically prohibited the use of spikes to support shuttering. The contractor’s foreman, put a spike into the platform and struck the 33kV cable. The safety systems kicked in and the power was isolated automatically. Trains came to a stop. It was Friday at 16:55. I had gone through Purley on my way home at 16:50. I learnt on Monday that trains did not recommence until after 22:00 when the fault was repaired.
Promotion saw me on site as Project Engineer for the Ludgate project in which Holborn Viaduct station was demolished and a new railway and station constructed underground to link Blackfriars to Farringdon. The project removed an obstruction to the view of St Pauls from Fleet Street, something that Charles Dickens had complained about in the mid 1900’s. The new line was taken under Ludgate Hill and to accommodate this the road was raised 1.5 metres!
In a meeting of the project steering group I proposed that the station be called London City. The station is now called City Thameslink. I can claim to have named the only new station in London since Victorian times.
When Railtrack was set up, I joined a group set up to provide technical advice in the new organisation. Up to this point in my career, I had generally worked on concrete structures, and so I represented Railtrack on a European working party researching fatigue in concrete. The research was to lead to the drafting of an appendix to the Eurocode for concrete design. This work involved testing of railway bridges in countries represented on the committee, and involved visits to see the bridges, and discuss the project. I joined the project after the team had just visited Japan!
I nevertheless went to Romania and East Germany just after the fall of communism, an interesting time. Other trips included Hamburg and Vermatt, Switzerland.
Romania was the most interesting and different from our way of life. Flights in to Bucharest were on a Monday and out on a Friday. As the plane taxied on arrival, a tank turret turned to follow the plane and armed soldiers turned and moved their guns to also follow the plane.
The trip to Romania necessitated an 8-hour train trip to the Carpathian Mountains to Piatra Neamt.
The Romanian Railways arranged for a special inspection coach to the put on the front of a normal passenger train. This coach had a meeting room with one long table down one side of the room, and kitchens for provision of meals, drinks etc. We left Bucharest at about 9 o’clock, and the first vodka was served at 10 o’clock!
One of the consequences of privatisation of the Railways was that many of the in-house experts were in parts of the railway that was sold to various companies. I thus found myself by necessity having to pick their brains and become the companies ‘expert’ representative to draft standards to capture the missing expertise.
One aspect that I lead for the company was the development of new standards for paint. Form this I have had the opportunity to see the view from the top of the Forth Bridge when it was being repainted.
At one time I was the only bridge engineer in Network Rail!
I must have done something right as although I had no specific experience of management of railway masonry arches, I was asked to represent Network Rail in a European project to revise the UIC code for management of masonry arches.
This involved more continental travel to attend meetings in many places that I had not been able to visit, Budapest, Prague, Zurich, Oslo, Madrid, Wroclaw, Rome to name but few with on occasions a visit provided in the evenings courtesy of the hosts such as the Rheinfalls, and river trips in Budapest, Paris, and Prague.
The other aspect of my work was to be Network Rail’s ‘Bridge Strike Champion’ – not the best but the lead in managing the particular risk that cannot be controlled by any rail authority. It was an interesting challenge and one that resulted from drivers making some very strange decisions. This appears to be a problem in UK, Eire, USA and Australia. I was not able to find a business case however to go to the last two to investigate the problem.!
I retired in 2014 and to satisfy my interest in foreign lands have embarked on trips to India and across the USA, all by rail. China awaits this September.

posted: Friday, 10 June 2016

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