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Member of the Month
Matthew Youell MSc BEng(Hons) CEng FIHE
- Wednesday October 19, 2022
Senior Technical Advisor, National Highways
What inspired you to a career in engineering?
My family background was a major factor; my mother was a science and maths teacher, and my father was a lecturer in the physics department at the University of Leeds. I did three separate sciences at 0-levels when the norm was to do an integrated course. This suited me at the time but made me to look at working in areas of applied science as opposed to pure science.
What made you join the IHE?
Having spent most of the 1990s doing interesting things with bridges and other structures, I was given the chance of doing some highway engineering, working on the London primary route re-signing project. This was only supposed to be temporary but by the time we had published the revised Traffic Signs Manual (TSM) Chapter 8 in the noughties it was obvious I was having too much ‘fun’ doing traffic signs and decided to leave IStructE and join the IHE. The Chapter 8 roadshows the IHE did at the time showed a commitment to training in a form that was effective and useful
to practitioners at different levels; also, they were a nice bunch of people!
Has professional registration benefited your career and your employer?
I only became a chartered engineer in 2021; up to a few years ago it was not something which had much bearing on my work. However, with my work through several BSI committees I have to deal with engineers from different areas, including the automotive industry. Whether it was deliberate or not, their response to working with highway practitioners has been coloured by professional qualifications. Given there is a need over the next few years to align highway infrastructure and autonomous systems in vehicles, being a charted engineer will definitely be a help in working with other sectors.
Is there any advice you would give to IHE members?
It is always worth identifying the best learning opportunities or projects where you can have a bit of independence. A long time ago, when on secondment, I was involved with the assessment of the Forth Bridge for Railtrack. Rather than spend many happy hours playing on the bridge along with my colleagues, I volunteered to help, then lead, the development of the structural model used for the analysis. It wasn’t easy, having to do equivalent strain calculations on Christmas Eve while the rest of the office was down the pub, but it was something I could show was my work.
Please describe your role or position within your workplace.
Although I do some project management, I mostly act as a subject matter expert on a range of topics from highway engineering, through traffic signs to temporary traffic management/road works. Given the nature of National Highways, and its various responsibilities on behalf of the transport secretary, there is a dedicated directorate for Safety, Engineering and Standards (SES) led by the chief highways engineer, Mike Wilson. This provides both a direction on standards and innovation but also support and guidance to those building and maintaining roads. While this is mainly for National Highways, on behalf of the Department for Transport we also provide support for the whole UK for Traffic Signs Manual Chapter 8 as well as participation with stakeholders such as IHE.
Can you describe a typical working day?
There is plenty of crystal ball gazing and planning, sketching and drafting out developments for the next five to 10 years. I still have a regular flow of questions and pleas for help, which provide a degree of positive disruption. By finding out what others are having issues with, it hopefully makes it easier to identify gaps in advice, standards and specifications. It’s not a case of identifying things that are wrong; it can be a case of framing or phrasing things better. Being dyslexic does make it less easy to understand why others have different preferences in language; having failed 0-level English three times, I was the benchmark to see if texts made sense!
What do you find most enjoyable about your job?
In my current job I can be enthusiastic about engineering. It’s not only spreading knowledge but it’s also trying to create interest in understanding the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’. With my role I do get to be involved with many innovations; at least before COVID it meant getting out and about looking at the ‘new’ and even testing our products. An early test of in-car technology and autonomous braking systems was particularly interesting, although my manager at the time managed to defeat thesystem and hit the inflatable BMW.
Is there a professional achievement or high profile accomplishment that you would like to tell us about?
One of the current improvements in undertaking road works is a result of nearly 10 years of revising regulations, guidance, and nudging practitioners. Speed limits at major road works on high speed roads were 50mph for many years. Many of the justifications for this were lost in time, but it had been ingrained. We knew from trialling 40mph speed limits that the lower the limit the less effective it was at mitigating risk to road users. As roadworks need to be designed to be safe for road workers at the permanent speed limit, a significant benefit in both safety and reducing delay could be achieved by designing road works to the highest safe speed. While suitable higher performance signs, markings and equipment have been available, it was only with the opportunity to revise the road works signs in TSRGD 2016 that we could provide flexibility to design works to be safe at higher speeds. Working with fellow IHE traffic sign panel member Andy Sturrock, we tested revised design rules in the simulator at Leeds University. After this it was a case of working with DfT on TSRGD and TSM Chapter 8 to provide the flexibilities in the design process. Luckily it fitted into the first two priorities of what was Highways England in 2015 (safety and customers) and was adopted by Major Projects, which has been able to roll out the principle of highest safety speed (mostly 60mph), both improving safety and road user experience.
What do you consider the biggest challenges facing the highways and transportation industry?
We have to make road infrastructure more durable using products that are less polluting to manufacture. A by-product of more durable products is that we can reduce risk to both road workers and road users by reducing workers’ exposure out on the network. It will need a step change in how we incentivise designers and contractors to choose better products to maintain our roads. Many manufactures have been innovating better products over the last 10 years but many authorities, including National Highways, are working with specifications 10 or 20 years old. I chair the BSI standards committee on the interaction between infrastructure and autonomous in-vehicle systems. While connectivity is important for effective use of the network, the ability of sensors in autonomous systems to read the road is vital. A universal connectivity system may be a few years away, but we are going to soon get, possibly this year, SAE level 3 vehicles, which should be able to safely navigate along high-speed motorways, dual carriageways and modern single carriageways (depending on the weather). The design of UK roads (and road works) is much more autonomous-friendly than in many European countries. The problem is that we let our roads, from markings to vegetation clearance, deteriorate too much for the systems to work across the network. By the combination of being both green and CAV friendly we can possibly have a step change in our approach to maintenance.
Where do you see yourself in your career in five years?
The next five years is going to fairly hectic in highways and will define possibly the next 20 in terms of how people are going to use the UK road network (Mobility as a Service anybody?). Hopefully I will have survived this period and will be planning for a transition to retirement.
Do you participate in any other career related activities, such as mentoring, volunteering or membership of other engineering groups?
I sit on the IHE traffic signs panel; we have a varied range of experience and can help with issues which are over and above those covered by the IHE professional certificate and diploma. We like to be asked questions that even we have to think twice about. I also spend quite a bit of time working and sometimes chairing standard committees for BSI. You get to do interesting things and work with colleague across Europe. I also get to spend time reading the Construction Products Regulations and associated documents and try to translate it to be relevant to UK practitioners. I hope its appreciated!
What would you like to see change about the industry?
I would ban anything that drained the aspiration to do a ‘good’ job rather than do the absolute minimum. While there will be times where doing the minimum is justified, it should be something
which a least causes a pang of regret over the afternoon cup of tea.