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12/07/2012: Engineering genius goes underground, by Chris Stokes

Construction National blog logoI'm not usually prone to using this space for a TV review, but I'm going to make an exception this week. In a return to a former life – the first paid writing job I had was as a theatre reviewer – I am going to extol the excellent Channel 5 programme Building the London Underground, broadcast at 8pm on 11 July. It went into great depth on the engineering challenges involved in building underground railway systems that run under major cities, and in particular cities that span major rivers.

Perhaps as amazing is the fact that the upgrading of the Underground that is going on now is biggest of its kind in the world. The programme featured the new station on Canary Wharf, which is being built under the water as there isn't room on the land because of all the skyscrapers.

It also briefly ventured across the channel to show some of the solutions found by the French engineer Fulgence Bienvenüe in building the Paris Metro – in particular the ingenious but hazardous use of sealed boxes to form the stations and tubes. I'd always thought, when visiting Paris as a youth, that the station at Montparnasse Bienvenüe was offering me a warm welcome. Of course it is named in honour of the Breton genius, although apparently when it was opened the dieresis in his name was missed off and the station sign did, indeed, welcome one and all.

The programme is available to see again at Demand 5 until 8 August.

Part of the Underground upgrade is also part of the Crossrail project, which is itself making history. It is also revisiting history, as the system will be temporarily re-opening the Kingsway Tram Tunnel as a grout shaft to firm the ground under it for tunnelling next year. The tunnel, in Holborn, is a Grade Two-listed structure that has been closed since 1952.

Martin Harrison-Putnam is the head of collections at the London Transport Museum. He said: ""The tram tunnel operated for less than 50 years and provided the only link between the north and south London tram networks. Opened in 1906, serving two subterranean stations at Holborn and Aldwych, the tunnel was enlarged in 1929 to accommodate double deck trams. The pioneering decision by London County Council to construct the country's first tram tunnel was both innovative for its time and now of enduring historical importance."

Staying with listed buildings, the Listed Property Owners' Club has admitted defeat in the battle to stave off VAT from alterations to said buildings, although there is confusion as to the deadline for completing works. In a release issued on 11 July, the RICS warned owners to get work finished by the original deadline of October this year.

The RICS release stated: "On 1 October 2012, the government is lifting the exemption on VAT to listed buildings, which it terms an 'anomaly', and imposing VAT at 20 per cent to all alterations and restorations in a move which will cost owners of listed buildings thousands of pounds just to ensure their property does not fall into disrepair."

In an e-circular the LPOC claims a number of concessions, including one extending the deadline for completing work to October 2015, provided listed building consent had been applied for before 21 March this year. Whichever is right, the fight will be resumed.

Chris Stokes