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Businesses gets immersed in new tunnel hype

Businesses from across Europe gathered at the site of what will be the world’s longest immersed road and rail tunnel in early June to hear how the cross-border mega-project will provide work and boost economies.

The £5.6bn Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link proposes to connect the Danish island of Lolland, with the German island of Fehmarn.

While the distance across the Belt (or strait) is a mere 18km, the tunnel is expected to carve out an important economic corridor connecting Germany and Sweden.

rsz fehmarn1 32

rsz fehmarn1 32

The 18km tunnel will take cars and trains

While contracts are signed and land lies in wait, German environmental approvals are the final hurdle.

The Femern Belt Development (FBD) organisation is the chief co-ordinator for stakeholders of the Danish Zealand Region, the cross-border project is attracting attention from much further afield.

I’m very satisfied that so many foreign businesses have made their way here today to participate,” FBD managing director Stig Romer Winther told New Civil Engineer at the Fehmarn Link Business Conference last month.

The buzz and excitement around the mega-project is palpable, creating an estimated 3,000 jobs in Denmark and 1,000 in Germany during the predicted eight and a half year construction phase, not counting spin-off work for subcontractors.

Fehmarnbelttunnel v2

Fehmarnbelttunnel v2

But amid the positivity, there is no firm timeline for delivering the tunnel connecting Scandinavia to Central Europe.

“When I started with this, eight years ago, the Fehmarn project was going to start in 2012, then it was postponed two years, another two years, now the German planning approval will come in a year’s time, so with that from the Danish side they will finally be able to start the construction work.” says Winther.

A crucial milestone came in late May when the selected contractor consortium signed contracts. The team includes Vinci Construction Grands Projets, Per Aarsleff, Royal Bam Group (with its three arms Bam Infra, Bam International and Wayss & Freytag Ingenieurbau), Solétanche-Bachy International, CFE and Max Bögl Stiftung.

Dredging International (Deme Group) is subcontractor for the tunnel contracts and Cowi is acting as a consultant.

June 2016 start

Some more recent estimates were for a start in June 2018. But environmental groups based on the German shore are expected to make claims for added mitigation work, which could add a six to 18 months delay, and casuse further uncertainty about a starting date.

“Also the local ferry company (Scandlines) has been very against it, because of course they might lose their business. The investment fund that owns Scandlines has publicly announced they will do whatever they can to prevent a fixed link,” Winther says.

“We have seen recently that an analysis of the pros and cons on the German side and this analysis showed 53% of population for, 34% don’t know, and 14% are definitely against it.”

Public support

As recent as 2014 Danish public opinion has been as high as 20% against the tunnel, but political, business and union leaders on both sides of the divide are in support of the project.

Right now little-to-no actual work on the tunnel is happening. The wide swathes of green pasture on either side of the belt sit ready and waiting.

The next step will be to examine an expected shortage of workers through a conference on labour markets in late autumn.

“This might sound strange but we really do suffer from very low unemployment [about 4.2% in Denmark]: the local businesses will struggle to find workers, that’s a fact of life. But we are working very hard to solve it,” Winther says.

We will need a lot of foreign workers, to accomplish, not only the Fehmarn link, but connecting rail projects in east Denmark

Stig Romer Winther, FBD

“In my opinion, the UK has very good chances. We will need a lot of foreign workers, to accomplish, not only the Fehmarn link, but connecting rail projects in east Denmark.”

These comments were made before Britain voted to leave the European Union. And if the referrendum campaigns were any indication, immigration and the free movement of workers are among the more politically fraught issues to be ironed out in the months ahead.  

Comply Serve technical account manager, UK and Europe Mark Rogers was among the handful of UK companies representing the UK at the conference.

“It’s significant that there’s this number of people, when the project is still a few years away,” Rogers says.

It’s the third foray in Scandinavia for the company that offers a cloud data-management service for major projects, including work on Qatar rail, Dohar Metro and Crossrail.

Scandinavians are very open, very happy to hear innovative ideas and other options, wherever they come from. They see what’s working, take the best from elsewhere. It’s refreshing.”


In July 2015 the European Commission approved the public financing model of the Fehmarnbelt scheme, ruling it was within European Union state aid rules.

Under a state-guarantee, the £5.6bn tunnel will be repaid by users over time – an estimated 36 years. The Danish Parliament will decide on the price of tunnel tolls, but project promoter Femern A/S, uses a benchmark of 494 Danish Krone (£52) per passenger car in its financial modelling.

By comparison, ferry passengers travelling on Scandlines (which has a monopoly on the route) pay about €100 (£79) one-way – which is “ridiculous” according to one local resident who spoke to New Civil Engineer on the ferry.

Trip time

With the tunnel built, Hamburg to Copenhagen will take under 3 hours by train, rather than the current four and a half hours at least via the 160km detour across the bridges of the Great Belt archipelago further north.

Vehicles will take 10 minutes to navigate the tunnel, while trains will take 7 minutes.

Currently, ferries cross the strait every half hour, and the trip takes 45 minutes (not counting the time it takes to queue to board).

The project will also join up with £1.01bn of extra work on rail in East Denmark to further enhance the Germany-Sweden link.

More than 100 bridges will be raised and widened to fit electrification and higher speeds.

The 120km from north from the tunnel to Ringsted will be electrified, given a new signals system and upgraded to 200km/h.


Tunnel construction

The tunnel trench will be 18km long. Sixteen million cubic metres of dredge quantity will have to be excavated, and 2.7M.t of rock will placed). The trench’s lowest point will be 40m below sea level at its lowest depth.

 The tunnel will be a four lane motorway with emergency lanes, with twin a track railway in separate tubes

Some 89 concrete segments produced on site in Denmark in a dedicated factory/harbour are to be built in Rodbyhavn, with each tunnel segment taking 61 days to produce.

Fehmarnbelttunnel cutncover v1

Fehmarnbelttunnel cutncover v1

Each concrete segment will be 217m long, 42.2m wide, 8.9m high, will weigh 73,000t, use 2,282,665m3 of concrete and 309,994t reinforced steel.

The tunnel elements will be sealed at both ends with steel bulkheads for buoyancy, then raised up to sea level in a dedicated harbour next to the factory.

Using two submersible pontoons, each element will be floated out to position by four tugboats, accompanied by surveying and support vessels and supervised by maritime authorities.

A system of internal ballast tanks will enable each element to balance and sink. These tanks will be remotely controlled from the bridge on the immersion pontoons, allowing managers to fine tune an element’s position in the water according to waves and currents.

Once at the site, the element will be anchored in a holding area near the tunnel trench. Depending on conditions, immersion will then take between 24 and 72 hours and the element must be placed to a 50mm tolerance, using GPS and echo sounding technology.

Using a hydraulic arm, the elements are dragged together in the trench, with rubber gaskets joining the ends. Pumps remove water from between the bulkheads, with the resulting pressure differential forcing the concrete together. Reinforced concrete is used to complete the joint.

The elements rest on a foundation of crushed stone up to 1m thick, with coarse gravel infilled on the sides to hold the elements in place. Sand will be placed on the gravel, and about 1m-thick layer of stone finishes will be placed on the element roof to form a protective layer flush with the seabed.

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