Sir Alan Muir Wood

Tunnelling engineer

Born: 8 August, 1921, in London.

Died: 1 February, 2009, in Reading, Berkshire, aged 87.

SIR Alan Muir Wood, FREng, FRS, was a distinguished tunnelling engineer. He was also a generous benefactor to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

In 1980, a cousin passed him a box containing about 900 early photographs and paper negatives produced by his great grandfather John Muir Wood (1805-92). John Muir Wood lived in Edinburgh until 1848, where he was a partner in a family music business.

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Between the early 1840s and mid-1850s, he devoted much energy to the pursuit of photography, using the early calotype technique, which produced paper negatives of remarkable quality and chemical stability.

In 1985, Sir Alan donated the entire collection, which was worth a substantial amount of money, to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

An exhibition of John Muir Wood's photography was held at the gallery in 1988, while the 2008 National Galleries of Scotland exhibitions included John Muir Wood and the Origins of Scottish Landscape Photography. His work has featured in several exhibitions elsewhere, including one in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Alan Marshall Muir Wood was born in Hampstead, north London. His father was an Admiralty civil servant.

He spent part of his childhood in Malta, where he recalled children's parties on naval ships which included overhead rides from the masthead and similarly dangerous activities. When he was nine, the family moved to Chatham, Kent, where he roamed freely in the naval dockyard.

He was educated at Abbotsholme School, Derbyshire, which had a progressive educational ethos and an emphasis on outdoor activities. He learned to recognise birds from their song and, more predictably for a future engineer, helped install a new stage lighting system.

In January 1940, he enrolled at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he read mechanical sciences. On graduating, in 1942, he was immediately called up and joined the navy, where training in a shipyard was followed by duties at sea as an engineer, mainly on HMS Petard. At one point the crew were granted a week's leave from Haifa. Most chose the flesh-pots of Tel Aviv, but Muir Wood and a friend asked for transport to the Sea of Galilee, as a starting point for a hike across rough ground and mountains to Beirut, in which the sense of adventure was increased by a very inadequate map.

In 1943, he married Winifred Leyton Lanagan, who was a year below him at Cambridge.

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Having demobilised, he joined the southern region of British Railways and cut his geotechnical teeth working on the stabilisation of landslides at Folkestone Warren, which regularly interrupted the railway line. Following a short spell with the Inland Waterways Executive, he joined the consulting civil engineering firm Sir William Halcrow and Partners (now called simply Halcrow) in 1952 and remained there until his death.

He specialised in geotechnical or ground engineering but within this broad field his particular interests were coastal engineering and tunnelling. Several towns along the south coast of England owe their delayed departure into the sea to the protective interventions Muir Wood designed.

His book Coastal Hydraulics, first published in 1969, was for many years a standard undergraduate textbook. In retirement he was able to return to his love of the seashore as a member of the review board for the ocean outfalls in Sydney.

Internationally, he is best remembered as a tunnel engineer. He was instrumental in setting up the International Tunnelling Association in 1973, and was the association's honorary life president from 1976 until his death.

His first major tunnel project was the pair of tunnels on the east coast main line at Potters Bar, just north of London. His experience with segmental linings in these tunnels was to prove valuable in later tunnels he designed in similar ground conditions in and around London.

The twin Clyde tunnels in Glasgow were constructed using compressed air to withstand the water pressures in the fluvial sands and gravels.

The cargo tunnel at Heathrow Airport was a daring result of Muir Wood's analytical assurance and prior experience. The 10m diameter tunnel was dug just 7m below an operational runway. Prophets of doom insisted it could not be done but the ground movements were in fact small and the tunnel was a great success; to have made it deeper would have required steeper access gradients, which Muir Wood knew to be impossible because of space restrictions.

His association with the Channel Tunnel spanned some four decades, starting with site investigations for the Channel Tunnel Study Group in the late 1950s.

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Perhaps he regretted that the Channel Tunnel was not eventually built to his designs, but he regretted far more that the Anglo-French disputes panel, of which he was part from 1988-98, had so much business to dispute.

The project was completed over-time and over-budget with much acrimony between the various parties involved.

However, learning from this disappointing experience, he was delighted to have been invited to act as a consultant on risk sharing and dispute resolution from the start of the project to build the resund crossing between Denmark and Sweden and subsequently chairman of the dispute review board for dredging and reclamation.

He largely succeeded in his ambition to have what disputes existed discussed and resolved among engineers who understood the real nature of the problems.

Sir Alan Muir Wood was president of the Institution of Civil Engineers 1977-78; he was a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society; and he was knighted for services to civil engineering in 1982.

He is survived by his wife and three sons as well as eight grandchildren.