Britain’s Modern Brunels

BBC Radio 4 marks the 200th anniversary of legendary engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel by spotlighting the achievements of modern British engineering heroes. The four programmes, starting on Wednesday, 12th April at 9pm on BBC Radio 4, cover the areas of transport, structures, public health and environmental concerns. Each programme can be listened to again for one week after transmission at

In the first of her new four part series, Sue Nelson celebrates the bicentenary of Isambard Kingdom Brunel – voted one of the greatest of Britons in a recent BBC poll – whose railways and iron steam ships turned Queen Victoria’s reign into a high speed era. But where in Britain today could you find engineers whose achievements or grand visions compare with Brunel’s in the field of transportation?

In the spotlight for the first programme are modern heroes of transportation Doug Oakervee, Nigel Gee and “budding Brunel” Jenny Goodman.

Like Brunel, whose Great Western Railway helped to revive the flagging economy of the west of England, Doug Oakervee’s Mass Transit Railway helped turn Hong Kong from a sleepy British colony into a modern commercial centre. His new Hong Kong international airport – built on an artificial island in the South China Sea – was a spectacular feat of civil engineering. Standing on a jetty in the Thames Estuary, Sue Nelson learns of Doug’s current plans to turn a disused petrochemical plant into Britain’s biggest container port and help to revive East London’s economy in the process.

One of Britain’s top naval architects, Nigel Gee’s career began amidst the excitement of hovercraft and he later built the world’s fastest passenger catamaran ferry – never bettered – which still crosses the River Plate from Argentina to Uruguay. His current obsession is to build the world’s fastest container ship – the revolutionary Pentamaran – to cross the Atlantic twice as fast, but on the same fuel, as its competitors creating a new, ocean-going courier service for the 21st century.

Jenny Goodman is the programme’s “budding Brunel”. Still studying for her PhD in Aerospace Engineeering, she’s helping to turn ramjets into a practical propulsion methos for supersonic passenger aircraft. Her research could help turn the London-to Sydney route from a long haul to a short hop, but cutting the flying time to two and a half hours, around three times as fast as Concorde.

Programme 2 (19th April 2102): Giant structures

Brunel’s famous Clifton Suspension Bridge sets the scene for the bridges and 21st century bridging structures in this programme, featuring:
Norman Haste (Second Severn Crossing, Heathrow Terminal 5)
Stephen Morley (Wembley Stadium Arch and roof)
Jim Sterling (The Falkirk Wheel and Scotland’s Millennium Canals Link)

Programme 3 (26th April 2102): Public Health

Brunel’s battlefield hospital built for the Crimean War sets the scene for this programme asking if it’s true that engineers help prevent disease as doctors mainly cure it, featuring:
Jeff Farrow (Thames Water Ringmain)
Phil Nedin (Arup, Altnagelvin Hospital extension)
Richard Granger (Director General NHS IT and Chief Executive, Connecting for Health)

Programme 4 (3rd May 2102): Environmental Concerns

Brunel sought to do away with the steam locomotive on his failed atmospheric railway between Exeter and Plymouth. But his approach had more to do with saving on the cost of coal than protecting the environment. For this programme’s modern Brunels, environmental concerns are uppermost. Featuring:

Mark Whitby (human scale bridges that slow down the pace of life and cut our dependency on fossil fuels).
Richard Yemm (world’s 1st wave energy system to feed electricity into the national grid)
“Budding Brunel” Hannah Chalmers (promoting cleaner fossil fuel power stations)