Ken Bilston OAM

Ken’s prodigious career in Australia’s pipeline industry, which has also seen him work throughout Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan and Nigeria, initially began working on the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Authority’s large steel water pipelines.

Upon entering the pipeline industry in 1962, Ken had graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering in Metallurgical Engineering at the University of Queensland in 1962 and had also been a Commonwealth Department of Supply cadet engineer.

Ken says that this position as a cadet engineer saw him posted to the Small Arms Factory (SAF) Lithgow, where, according to Ken, “Among other things, I first got introduced to ultrasonic inspection used to test the presence of cracks in 81 mm mortar shell castings.

“My shift from SAF Lithgow to the Snowy Mountain Hydro Electric Authority (SMHEA) was a critical one; a move from manufacturing engineering to large-scale construction and particularly to the intricacies and issues of welding high-strength steel.

“The move to the SMHEA was initiated by my boss at SAF, Les Alchin, who saw an ad for the position in an industry magazine and encouraged me to apply,” says Ken.

Ken’s Snowy projects included the Murray 1 and Murray 2 pipelines followed by the huge Tumut 3 pipelines and the Geehi Aqueduct stainless steel lining job.

“I had joined the Snowy project in 1966 to undertake the first welding research project for the Australian Welding Research Association. The object was to reduce the cost of welding in the manufacture and field assembly of high-tensile steel pipelines with diameters from 10 to 18 feet,” recalls Ken.

As his time at the Snowy progressed, just before Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister in 1972, Ken was responsible for supervising the repair of the Snowy’s Geehi Aqueduct pipeline by installing a stainless steel pressure liner inside its failing concrete pipe.

Ken recalls that when Rex Connor’s The Pipeline Authority (TPA) took over the Moomba to Sydney Pipeline from AGL in 1973, TPA borrowed three engineers from the Snowy to monitor the work of Williams Brothers-CMPS who were engineering managers for AGL. It was here, in 1973, that he moved across from the Snowy and was sent to Sydney to work for Tom Baker.

Ken says that this move to oil and gas pipelines started with the repairs of hundreds of cracked welds and dents found on the Moomba to Sydney Pipeline. “My role continued into the technical side of the litigation which followed. In all, I spent from early 1973 through to the end of 1976 on the design and construction side of the pipeline, then from early 1978 to 1980 on the litigation.

“In between, I worked for SMEC on the welding of very large steel columns and beams which supported the underground Kings Cross Railway Station in Sydney.”

Ken recalls that while working on the Moomba to Sydney Pipeline, Tom Baker got him involved in the development of Australian Standards for gas pipelines. “This was an activity with which I was intensively involved for the next 29 years as Australian Standards moved forward from the first CB28 through to AS2885 in its various parts.

“It was the most challenging and at times the most frustrating activity of my career and was paralleled by an ongoing involvement in the welding research field; first for the AWRA and subsequently with Panel 7 and the Pipeline Research Committee of APIA.”

Ken was subsequently employed as Engineering Manager of TPA from the end of 1980, but left to pursue his dream of the Skitube alpine railway and associated developments of the Station Accommodation Complex and the Blue Cow Skifield in NSW. Ken says that he continued to work in the pipeline industry during the long time it took to get the Skitube project approvals, with projects in Malaysia and then Iran during the Iran-Iraq War.

Ken recalls “Once Skitube was finished, I settled back to pipeline work, both in Australia and overseas with a submarine water pipeline in Sabah, Malaysia followed by a multi-product submarine pipeline system for loading tankers in Nigeria.

“After several years overseas, I returned to Australia and worked briefly for BHP Engineering on a number of pipeline studies in Australia and overseas including a gas pipeline across the Andes. My first retirement came in 1998, but I was soon back in harness working for BHP Petroleum on the pipeline activities associated with its Zamzama gas field in Pakistan and its much larger hope of an international pipeline to bring Iranian gas to Pakistan. That project has been in the hopeful stage since 1995.”

Ken says that he retired again in 2006 but had a small involvement with Exxon on the never-to-be-built Papua New Guinea to Queensland Pipeline. “Since then, I have enjoyed retirement and only a small consultancy with the World Bank for a project in Pakistan has kept me in contact with the pipeline industry.”

When asked about his most memorable recollections of his time in the industry, Ken says “Oh, the stories one accumulates over 46 years in the pipeline industry are innumerable. I have fond memories of the repair work on the Moomba to Sydney Pipeline where the cracked welds and dents were mapped from the inside of the 34 inch pipeline using battery-powered trolleys and most of the cracks were also repaired from the inside using diesel powered welding machines.

“It was a measure of the calibre of Tom Baker that, as General Manager, he insisted on trialling the equipment for working up to a mile up the inside of the pipeline before he would allow any workers to commence using the equipment.”

Ken says that the Moomba to Sydney Pipeline also brought him into contact with Russ Lumb, who was brought out from British Gas to review more than 10,000 x-rays of welds in the pipeline. Russ and his family all migrated to Australia as a result and they continue to be in contact.

Another great character Ken recalls was Peter Cantwell, former skipper of Police Car in the Australian Admirals Cup sailing team. “Peter was my Project Director on one pipeline in Malaysia and on the big Nigerian project,” says Ken.

Finally, Ken says “The people who I admired greatly and who both assisted and influenced me greatly were Andy Lukas, Phil Venton, Max Kimber and Leigh Fletcher.

“Without doubt, Tom Baker was both mentor and the primary influence in the early years. Tom was a good manager, but also got involved in the technical issues enough to make good decisions. He gave me confidence to stretch myself in all sorts of ways, perhaps the most telling was the standards work.”

When asked about the industry’s greatest strength, Ken says “I think the industry’s greatest strength in the time I was involved with it was the fact that it did not suffer from the factionalism between owners, suppliers, regulators and constructors, which is evident in its overseas equivalents.

“This has been evident both in APIA and in the Standards committees and the research work.”

In 1990, Ken received an Order of Australia Medal for services to engineering. In addition to this, in 1997 Ken’s services to the industry were recognised when he received the APIA Outstanding Contribution to the Australian Pipeline Industry at the Convention in Adelaide.

Ken’s current involvement in the industry is as a part-time consultant to the World Bank in relation to a project to improve the gas distribution system of one of the two large gas companies in Pakistan.
Ken has had two trips to Pakistan over two years and expects one more when the winter sailing season finishes in 2012.

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