Professor Tom Williams

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The Independent Online

Thomas Eifion Hopkins Williams, civil engineer: born Cwmtwrch, Breconshire 14 June 1923; Assistant Lecturer in Civil Engineering, University College Swansea 1947; Lecturer in Civil Engineering, King's College, Durham University (later Newcastle University) 1948-52, Senior Lecturer 1958-60, Reader in Highway and Traffic Engineering 1960-64, Professor of Civil and Transport Engineering 1964-67; Professor of Civil Engineering, Southampton University 1967-83, Research Professor of Civil Engineering 1983-93 (Emeritus); CBE 1980; married 1947 Lois Davies (one son, two daughters); died Winchester 17 June 2001.

Tom Williams was a notable figure, both as teacher and as leader of research, during the motorway era. He was a pioneer in the numerate assessment of forecasts of traffic demand and the justification of infrastructure investment.

Williams never forgot his roots and he cherished his Welshness and all things associated with Welsh culture. He was a member of the Gorsedd of Bards, to be seen regularly in his green robes at the National Eisteddfod, and a key member of the Gymanfa Ganu, held each year in Southampton, where everyone was welcome to what is, essentially, a Welsh singalong. His melodious voice commanded as much attention at international conferences, in the 1970s and 1980s, as it would have done from a Welsh pulpit a century earlier. His wife, Lois, was an ideal Welsh "Mam" and with his son and two daughters provided the homely loving background from which he pursued his career.

Thomas Eifion Hopkins Williams was born in Cwmtwrch, Breconshire, in 1923 and educated at Ystradgynlais Grammar School, University College, Swansea, and Durham University. After brief employment with Armstrong Whitworth in 1945 and on the construction of trunk roads for Glamorgan County Council in 1946, he turned to an academic career in civil engineering and transport and moved as Assistant Lecturer to King's College, Durham, in 1948.

International recognition of his early work enabled him to move to the United States as a Post-doctoral Visitor to the University of California at Berkeley in 1955 and in 1957 he became a Visiting Professor in Northwestern University, near Chicago. Williams returned to Durham the following year as Senior Lecturer, later becoming Reader, then Professor of Civil and Transport Engineering. In 1967 he took up a professorial chair in Southampton University and served until 1983, when he was appointed Research Professor in Civil Engineering. He held that chair until he reached his 70th birthday.

Given his personality, his presentational skills and his research reputation, it is not surprising that Williams's life was marked by a stream of publications and public and professional roles through which he exerted great influence on transport policy and professional and technical standards. He also influenced generations of students under his care, teaching them to think, rather than drilling them in procedures. His demeanour was always kind and courteous.

Williams extended American methodology to British practice and drew engineers' attention to the processes of justifying what they were doing through the allied art of microeconomics. His publications are liberally scattered with words such as practice, strategy, prediction, environment, integrated transport (before it was popular), land use, usage and operations, assignment, generation, redistribution, mobility, accessibility and policy, and a typical title was Urban Survival and Traffic (1961). He published in the institutional journals, but was also an important contributor to, and much in demand for, international conferences.

He was heavily involved, through three decades, in public advisory bodies, as well as playing a significant role on committees of the Institution of Civil Engineers and as a long-serving member of the Institution of Highways and Transportation (and its president in 1979-80). He was also a member of the Transport Committee of the Science Research Council and the Public Policy Committee of the RAC.

For government Williams played a conspicuous part in the proposals for inter-city vertical take-off and landing flights and published the definitive Inter-City VTOL: potential traffic and sites (1969). Although it did not come to fruition, his contribution was thoughtful and impressive. He was a member of the Civil Engineering Economic Development Committee of the National Economic Development Office from 1967 to 1976 and, as one of the peak points in his career, its chairman from 1976 to 1978.

He followed on as a member of the Leitch Committee, set up under Sir George Leitch to advise the Department of Transport on Trunk Road Assessment. After the report had been submitted, the Secretary of State installed the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (Sactra) to advise further and Williams was its chairman from 1980 until 1987. He was regarded as a fair and equitable chairman with good skills in summarising issues and proposing likely solutions for which a consensus could be found.

The last was not an easy task since the committee's work coincided with considerable public protest against the building of motorways, on environmental grounds, but also because motorway building had started to have an impact on middle-class urban areas, invoking very skilled objection. Williams gave an impartial and informed performance as chairman of the assessment committee, and pressed for systematic appraisal of road schemes, which quickly found its way into practice.

On the international stage Williams was a principal contributor to PIARC (the Permanent International Association of Road Congresses) and a member of its British national committee. He was also a long-term member of the organising committee for the conferences, held biennially, under the auspices of the European Automobile and Tourist Associations and known as the European Road Traffic Study Weeks.

Much of the work of these bodies led to harmonisation of national policies and standards of appraisal and engineering techniques and innovations, such as contributed to the defence against and reduction of road-traffic noise and pollution. Williams's high reputation led to his advisory role to the House of Lords Select Committee on European Transport and to membership of the Transport Research Laboratory's Advisory Committee on Traffic and Safety, 1977-80, and appointment as its Industrial Adviser and Visitor, 1982-88.

One of his favourite activities was being asked to contribute to the Welsh-language television channel S4C on traffic matters. It was always his pleasure to return to Wales and he struck a good balance between his public and private interests. For example, he spent eight years from 1982 on the Church Schools' Council and watched rugby whenever he could, having played in his youth.

Ron Bridle