This article originally published by The Sunday Morning Herald on the 08 March 2018. Click here to read the original.
The NSW government decision to buy more than $2 billion in new trains that are unable to fit through tunnels in the Blue Mountains would have been better thought through if the government had embraced engineering safeguards that have been proposed for several years.
Believe it or not, anyone in NSW can call themselves an engineer and there is no requirement that engineering advice be taken into account during the conception and development of major projects like this one.
NSW is now the only major state on the eastern seaboard where this is the case, after Victoria joined Queensland this week in adopting a professional registration system for engineers and the appointment of a chief engineer in government to ensure engineering advice is at the centre of decisions about engineering projects.
Most people are gobsmacked to hear that engineers working on everything from approving your plans for a house extension to managing huge projects like WestConnex do not have to be registered or licensed, unlike other professionals like electricians, architects, doctor and nurses.
It leaves the taxpayer exposed to cost blow-outs and, alongside the impact of outsourcing, has contributed to a hollowing-out of professional engineering expertise in the public service.
The consequences of this were all too clear in the decision to buy oversized trains, which could end up costing the NSW taxpayer up to $100 million. But the trains debacle is just the tip of the iceberg – we constantly hear stories from our engineer members of engineering advice taking a back seat on major projects.
We saw up to $50 million wasted in poor site selection for WestConnex last year and the official projected cost of WestConnex has blown out to about double their original estimate, largely due to inadequate planning.
This week, Roads and Maritime Services sent an instruction to staff saying technical engineering standards on road projects may need to be “traded off” in order to meet other demands.
The email says that: “not all technical standards are absolutes, they involve trade offs” and that some standards “have trade offs in terms of cost, speed of construction and customer impact”.
This government has relegated engineering advice and standards to an afterthought when they should be central to decisions to make sure mistakes don’t happen.
Cost blow-outs are one consequence of non-engineers making engineering decisions on major projects, but far more concerning are the public safety risks. Our power systems, water systems, buildings, roads and rail, all rely on engineers.
As you read this, major projects across the state are happening under the guidance of people who are not qualified engineers, putting the public at risk.
People in NSW should have the right to know that if they renovate their home and need to get an engineering report, the person assuring the work is a qualified engineer. They also have the right to know their government is taking a professional engineer’s advice on major project conception, development and delivery, in the interests of public safety and to avoid costly mistakes.
A registration system for engineers would ensure the safety and best interests of the public is protected – it would guarantee the engineer signing off on plans for major projects and community infrastructure is a qualified and registered person, with the right knowledge and qualifications.
It could also incorporate continual professional development requirements, to ensure engineers’ skills and knowledge are always up to date.
Engineers should be as well respected and recognised for their work as doctors or nurses and that means not allowing non-engineers to do engineering work.
Until we adopt a engineer registration system, public safety will be compromised and cost blow-outs like we’ve seen with the procurement of oversized trains will continue.
Chris Walton is the chief executive of the Association of Professional Engineers Australia.