The Big Interview: Matthew Dronfield fights the good fight


‘In any war or conflict bridges are always among the first targets.’ It may seem somewhat odd, not to mention morbid, to start a Surveyor interview article with a reference to war, but Matthew Dronfield (47), head of repairs and products at specialist civil engineering company Freyssinet Ltd, is using the point to illustrate the ‘humanity’ of bridges.

‘They are the most basic form of internet,’ he argues. There is something obviously and instantly symbolic about bridge structures and Mr Dronfield clearly feels it on a very personal level.

This being the month of Surveyor’s Bridges 2016 Conference, they take up much of our conversation, though it is clear there are few things Mr Dronfield would rather talk about.

‘Why am I so passionate about bridges?’ he asks himself halfway through a point. ‘Every time we drive over one, I keep looking around and up at the structure. My wife hates it.’

He would surely see a fictional world in which the bridge had never been invented as a dystopia by definition. And who would argue? Except perhaps Mrs Dronfield.

The point is also revealing of Mr Dronfield’s conversational style, which veers engagingly between happy forthrightness and charming caution, as he runs on.

Matthew Dronfield

He is the type of friendly and intelligent person who is capable and comfortable talking and thinking at the same time. Born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, he says he has not been back for years, adding quickly that there is ‘nothing significant’ about that fact. Though his effusive and avuncular style is, according to stereotype, rather rare in his homeland.

He looks after the UK and Irish market for Freyssinet but describes his job as ‘a very multicultural role’.

‘I have done worked in the supply chain in China; I have worked with different European countries like Germany and France. We have Italian branches and factories in Romania and the Czech Republic. You have to deal with different parts of the supply chain and balance that with the customer.’

This leads him onto a key point about importing products. ‘In Europe you tend to get a consistency of understanding on quality. So once you remedy a problem you don’t get it repeating itself, but in the Far East that is not always the case.

‘Doing a lot of testing and verification can be very important if the supply chain is outside of Europe. The Construction Products Directive is clear; we have to work to harmonise standards in Europe. The British market is very compliant and when you have a market as developed as ours it can be difficult satisfying it from outside.’ Looking at Freyssinet’s development, it appears that after joining the company 18 months ago Mr Dronfield has arrived at a ‘very exciting’ time both in terms of market expansion and product innovation.

‘We have now opened an office in Sheffield and we are growing worldwide. We have presences in Australia, India and are strong in the Middle East, with good teams out there building bridges.

‘Finger joints are strong and long-lasting and we have a range of development work around them on issues such as water collection. We have taken the opportunity to improve our bearings range with the new European standard. We have a special seal that goes round the piston, a proper wiping seal. [We are doing] lots of little things that make a big impact.’

And it is not just in hardware that Freyssinet is gaining ground. ‘We are working on a study called Hidden Defects with CIRIA. A paper will be coming out later this year. Hiding structural elements like steel inside concrete where water and half- joints exist for instance, these are things we can avoid in the future to avoid build structures that are non-maintainable.

New bolts and sections of tensile cable on the Hammersmith Flyover

‘Freyssinet is [also] looking at ways to add more value to temporary works. If we are going to jack a structure, we are trying to put value into the permanent structure without adding to maintenance, something that will work whole- life. Things like post-tensioning systems.’

Having worked on London’s Hammersmith Flyover repairs, Mr Dronfield asserts the benefits of such post-tensioning work.

‘Hammersmith is one of the few structures, perhaps in the world, that has been 100% retensioned.

‘The current technology we have around post-tensioning means it is very different to the old days. Nowadays with proper testing and verification it is a lot more controlled. The economics of using it still stand. For things like high speed rail we should be considering this, instead of using big steel structures,’ he states.

The collaborative work on Hammersmith, which made it possible to keep the roads running while the repairs were carried out, shows off Freyssinet as its best, he says.

‘We kept the roads above and below open. So how do you service that area? Freyssinet is particularly good at finding ways to reduce disruption, using techniques that remove some of the work from site. We fitted precast blisters, with fibre re-enforced concrete into the bridge to keep scaffolding away. They were put on the side of the structure. We put the tensioning along the structure so each blister carried the post-tensioning cables along the bridge. We made those off-site, with special equipment to rotate them to fit them into the structure from underneath.’

It appears the company suits Mr Dronfield ,who is ‘unusually, a mechanical engineer in a civils world’ – as he describes his firm as having a focus on ‘where structures move’.

One prime example came this Christmas when Freyssinet worked on the Highways England and Network Rail project at the Port of Immingham where a 4,000 tonne bridge was slid into place under a railway. More than 100 contractors worked from Christmas Eve until the early hours of 28 December to complete the project, which used four hydraulic jacks weighing more than five tonnes each to slide the bridge into position, but only after 20,000 tonnes of earth had been Not content, the firm’s railway division is embarking on a trial project with RSSB, looking at jacking an arch structure to make way for overhead cables for electrification.

”Local More than 100 contractors worked on the Highways England/Network Rail project at the Port of Immingham

‘If it doesn’t go well, there are people who may say we were foolish to try. But as engineers we have to do these things. We have a test bridge, which is funded by the Rail and Safety Standards Board, so it’s not live – and we are going to jack it by 500mm. To lift an arch structure you have to maintain the pressure of the arch. We dig away the ballast and then we cut out holes and put jacks in them and stabilise that. Then we cut along the line and create an interface on each abutment.’

While proud of his firm’s attempts to innovate, Mr Dronfield is not one to get carried away by the idea of tomorrow.

On the subject of drones for bridge inspection and maintenance, he looks forward somewhat sardonically to the day when one of them ‘has the sense of touch and can use a hammer’.

‘I am not saying it won’t happen. They are useful tools, [but] I think we have to be careful to separate tools from gadgetry.’

Drawing on experience, he also pours a dash of cold water on real-time sensors. ‘You can fit all sorts of sensors on a bridge, but you have to balance the maintenance of the sensors themselves with the maintenance of the structures.

‘My experience in the power generation business was that we could generate power reliably from embedded generators, for instance, but the biggest problem was that the sensors failed. The engines continued to run but we often had down time because the sensors had stopped.’ In local authority markets he says there is still a feeling of ‘shell shock’ from austerity and he calls for more collaboration, communication and early engagement as a matter of essential need. His stand-out memory of Hammersmith was the collaboration between the client and contractors.

He celebrates the shift towards greater engagement from Highways England and sees the move to regional transport authorities as beneficial in helping pool resources and plan projects better.

‘What we need is better cross-party understanding of infrastructure planning – from all those involved. I would put all barriers to communication in Room 101.’ Surveyor visited Hammersmith Flyover during its repair works and crawled along the small and stifling gap inside the structure, where workers laboured underneath the tarmac.

To those who work in such conditions repairing Britain’s infrastructure, it might appear at times that managers offer little more than Churchill’s ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. But just like Churchill, Mr Dronfield’s message seems to be: ‘Let us go forward with our united strength’.

After all, we must have victory, for without it there is no survival...for the bridges.

The Surveyor Bridges 2016 conference is on the 16th March at the Ricoh Arena Coventry


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