Q&A with David Hutchinson

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Name:  David Hutchinson
Job Title:  Route Asset Manager (Geotechnics) – Now retired
Company:  Network Rail Infrastructure Limited

During my geotechnical career I have worked for a variety of organisations in consulting, contracting and asset management in the UK, Canada, Republic of Ireland, United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong.  For the last 14 years of my career, up to 2017 when I retired, I worked in Network Rail, firstly for Network Rail (CTRL) as the Civil Engineering Asset Manager for the High Speed 1 railway, and then as Network Rail’s Geotechnical and Drainage Route Asset Manager for the London North Eastern and East Midlands Routes, based in York.

What or who inspired you to join the geotechnical industry?
In the second year of a general engineering degree I attended a short course on Soil Mechanics given by Professor Andrew Schofield which inspired me to undertake half of my final year studying Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering under Andrew, Dr Peter Wroth and others.  I then joined Soil Mechanics Limited, who encouraged their graduates to attain a second degree.  Imperial College was the choice for many, but I wanted to go further afield, and so studied at the University of Alberta under Professor Morgenstern, who like Andrew Schofield and Peter Wroth was a Rankine lecturer of the early 1980’s. The enthusiasm of geotechnical practitioners and academics for their subject has kept me in this industry for my whole career.

What does a typical day entail?  
There hasn’t really been a “typical day”.  But while working for the railway my phone was with me 24/7.  (Night time calls from railway control heralding some disaster or other were not unusual – guaranteed to dramatically increase the heart rate!)  First thing in the morning I always checked the weather forecast to see what challenges nature was going to throw at me that day, and then checked my emails to see what challenges I was going to get from my colleagues!  Although retired I still check the weather forecast and emails every morning, but at night always leave my mobile phone out of earshot!

Are there any projects which you’re particularly proud of? 
Over the years I have worked on many projects, and I’m proud of them all.  But I’m particularly proud of the people I have worked with, from the drillers in my earliest days supervising ground investigations, through my resident site staff on Landslip Preventive Measures works in Hong Kong, to the team working with me in York.  I like my HK Government given Chinese name 夏,智信 which sounds like my surname and translates as “Mr Summer, wise and trustworthy”!  But my proudest moment was when my line manager in York, in front of my peers, held up my staff as an example of a high performing team!  My advice is to always surround yourself with able and enthusiastic people!

What are the most challenging aspects of your role?  
The challenges at Network Rail were mostly administrative, particularly new initiatives and reorganisations.  I had 8 different line managers during my last 7 years of full-time work!  But the geotechnical task remained the same, and being a small specialist discipline, we were usually left to get on with the job.  It’s very satisfying when things are going smoothly, but there are periods of intense pressure when the railway is closed by a landslip, particularly if a train is derailed.  Route Asset Managers are Key Safety Posts having ultimate responsibility for the actions and consequences of the work of their team regarding passenger and public safety.  However, managing such incidents is the most “exciting” part of the job – leading the recovery by rapidly assessing the problem and the time needed to fix it, organising the response, communicating with the parties affected, and completing the work quickly and safely within the timescales you have given.  My rule was always under promise and over deliver (extending promised completion dates does not go down well!).

What AGS Working Groups are you a member of, and what are your current focusses?
I have been a member of the Loss Prevention Working Group since 2003.  Being in the LPWG and employed by a client organisation is rather unusual, as one of the group’s aims is to minimise our members’ business risks when dealing with their clients!   I became interested in the law in the 1980s while investigating geotechnical failures for cases of litigation in the High Court.  In Hong Kong I had the opportunity to study for a law degree, and on return to the UK a former colleague and chair of the AGS suggested I join the LPWG.  In 2007 (actually while standing in a WW1 German trench on Vimy Ridge!) I received a call asking if I would like to become LPWG chair, a post I held until 2014.  I joined the Business Practice Working Group in 2019.

Since 2003 I have helped to produce AGS documents such as Loss Prevention Alerts, Client Guides and Guidance generally, over a range of topics.  Currently I am updating our Guide to Training Paths for Geoprofessionals, and producing a Client’s Guide to the Selection of Geotechnical Advisers.  I review the downloads of AGS documents from the website to help spot trends and determine which topics are of most interest to our members, and I am updating our archives by collecting copies of published AGS documents which are no longer available for downloading.

What do you enjoy most about being an AGS member? 
I enjoy making a contribution to an industry which has given me the opportunity to work and live in a number of interesting places and to meet so many interesting people.  I want to help clients better understand the issues facing geotechnical practitioners, and to help clients better manage their infrastructure, in particular in the transport sector where I am continuing my membership of the Geotechnical Asset Owners Forum as the AGS representative.

What does your company find beneficial about being an AGS Member?
One of Network Rail’s aims is to create professional and mutually beneficial relationships with its suppliers.  In 2013 NR became the first AGS Client Affiliate Member.  The activities of the AGS and the documents it publishes help NR geotechnical staff broaden their knowledge and experience of the current issues in the industry.

Why do you feel the AGS is important to the industry?
The country must maintain its ability to deliver new infrastructure quickly, efficiently, cost effectively and without damaging existing infrastructure or endangering lives.  The infrastructure must then be maintained to high standards.  The AGS helps to maintain high standards and integrity of ground engineering and geoenvironmental practice, disseminating up to date practical knowledge including industry relevant health and safety guidance, minimising business risks and presenting a coherent industry voice.  It provides a forum for dialogue within the industry, and informs clients and other professionals how to engage with and what to expect from their geotechnical and geoenviromental advisers.  It also helps to explain to clients the risks associated with different engineering solutions and that lowest price for geotechnical and geoenvironmental work does not necessarily give the best investment and long term value for their project.

What changes would you like to be implemented in the industry?
The industry needs to be attractive to a diverse workforce, as described in a recent AGS webinar, to help reduce future shortages of skilled people.  It must continue to strive for more widespread use of ground information in the AGS data format.  Use of remote sensing, readings from large numbers of sensors on or in the ground and digital data from ground investigations will lead to the use of novel analytical techniques including machine learning and artificial intelligence.  People with the relevant data management and computing skills will be needed to carry out this work, in addition to those with civil engineering, geology and geoscience backgrounds.  A wider discussion is required on how the industry can reduce its carbon usage.