Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Tunnelling: The world goes underground

The design and construction of tunnels and underground infrastructure is now clearly emerging across the globe as the key to sustainable development as nations wrestle with the demand of growing and increasingly urbanised populations.


Opportunities: China and Hong Kong have become hotspots for tunnelling

As such, expertise and innovation in the tunnelling sector is increasingly in demand both in the developed and developing worlds to enable governments to find cost efficient and appropriate solutions to the challenges of providing mass transportation, flood control, storage and power and water supply infrastructure.

And, while UK firms and UK expertise remain at the cutting edge of innovation, the scale and complexity of tunnelling projects means that it is increasingly a global business.

It was a point made well at last month’s NCE tunnelling conference where Arup UKMEA leader for tunnels Matt Sykes highlighted the huge potential opportunity in the tunnelling industry around the world.

“Design is multinational already and it is increasingly becoming the norm,” he told delegates. “For contractors, it would perhaps be unusual now for a major project to be delivered without international partners.”

Certainly the success of the recent International Tunnelling Awards and the enthusiasm with which UK based contractors, consultants and clients joined with their partners from across the globe to champion and celebrate the year’s most successful performances underlined this fact.

“Tunnelling is a global business and this year’s awards once again saw an outstanding crop of entries and a shortlist that reflects the achievements by firms across the Americas, Asia Pacific, China and the Far East, Middle East, Australasia and Europe,” said International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association (ITA-AITES) president In-Mo Lee.

As founding partner of the awards, the ITA-AITES is keen to ensure that infrastructure projects are seen across the world as the driver for economic growth and that tunnelling really can kick-start faltering economies and underpin growth as nations develop.

But In-Mo warned that, despite clear enthusiasm by governments, the industry faces major challenges.

“Despite differing economic conditions around the world, there are still major challenges facing all of these regions when it comes to the construction of infrastructure,” he said. “While recession-struck western economies still struggle to find the case for and route to investment, regions such China and the Asia Pacific and Australia have the more enviable challenge of maintaining their pace of investment.”

However, the underlying reality is that, for all the political issues surrounding workflow and project pipelines across the world, the unifying global tunnelling challenge remains rooted in the continued shortage of engineering skills and tunnelling resources.

The clear message coming out of all international tunnelling industry gatherings is that education and training will have to remain at the heart of the global tunnelling community’s priority list over the next few years if it is to meet the demand for sustainable infrastructure.

This means that, year in year out, an ever-increasing array of innovative techniques must be made available to clients to ensure that underground construction is increasingly possible at lower cost and lower risk but with improved safety and greater efficiency.

In the UK, innovation and efficiency in the tunnelling industry demands a consistent, predictable and long term pipeline of work. For the first time in generations this may be a reality and the UK market has to get in shape to cope with it.

The announcement by chancellor George Osborne in his recent Autumn Statement to offer a £1bn loan guarantee for the long-awaited Northern Line extension project to Battersea was welcome news for both London Mayor Boris Johnson and the wider tunnelling industry.

Not only did the decision underline the clear value that the UK government now places on the construction of modern infrastructure as it strives to kick-start the faltering economy, but it also potentially added to the workload pipeline vitally needed to underpin the development of skills in UK tunnelling.

For generations the industry has been dogged by a succession of stop-start infrastructure investment policies. The chronological gap between major public rojects such as the Victoria Line extension, the London Ring Main, the Jubilee Line Extension and High Speed One have constantly been blamed for the industry’s failure to properly invest in skills and innovation.

However, the situation appears to be changing in the UK. As delegates at NCE’s tunnelling conference last month heard, the UK Treasury-backed National Infrastructure Plan has now assembled a clear pipeline of work to stimulate and drive the underground market.

The fact that the £14.5bn Crossrail scheme survived global economic downturn and the public spending austerity that followed, major political uncertainty of a general election and the local politics of the latest London mayoral election, demonstrates an understanding of the importance now placed on securing this infrastructure pipeline.


“Projects currently under development, such as the Bank Station upgrade, HS2, Crossrail 2 and the Thames Tideway scheme, will mean that the skills being developed for the London Power Tunnels, Crossrail and the Lee Tunnel will continue to be in demand,” said Sykes during his presentation to the conference.

“Other projects such as the Northern Line Extension, Silvertown Tunnel and Lower Thames Crossing will help maintain the consistency in demand that the UK tunnelling industry has seen since 2006 onwards,” he added.

But Sykes added that the challenge for the tunnelling industry was to make sure it did its part in securing this unprecedented series of major projects by delivering resources and results.

This, he said, had to be done through a focus on developing the skills of younger engineers and innovating to ensure tunnelling remains the cost-effective, risk-managed solution that the industry is currently delivering.

It was a point echoed by conference chairman, Halcrow practice leader for tunnelling and earth engineering and science Martin Knights during his opening address to the 200 delegates gathered at the ICE in which he highlighted the clear UK and global challenges.

“The UK tunnelling industry is currently in a very busy period - and the work is not just in London,” he said. “But this is just part of a global boom - in Shanghai there are currently 39 tunnel boring machines (TBMs) in the ground and another 20 being prepared for launch.”

Speaking after the conference Knights said that the past stop-start investment in UK tunnelling had left the industry with a so-called “missing generation” - the 40 to 50 year old engineers who did not enter the industry during the 1990s UK recession - and meant that the UK now faced a shortage of senior managers.

His own firm Halcrow was, he said, now recruiting young tunnellers from across the world to meet this demand but also, alongside other firms in the market, had to make up for the gap through investment in training.

“The British Tunnelling Society and the International Tunnelling Association have focused on training with significant investment in time and money in recent years,” explained Knights speaking after the conference. “UK companies and organisations face the shortage on a day to day basis and need to step up their efforts to provide their own training.”

The creation of the dedicated Tunnelling Academy in east London - led by Crossrail but backed and underpinned by the whole industry - demonstrates the industry’s commitment to boosting skills in the industry across the range of disciplines.

It is an investment that clients and the supply chain hope will pay dividends in terms of greater efficiency, safety and innovation brought to bear throughout the underground construction process, and an investment that should also boost UK firms’ ability to compete globally.

“Whatever training and recruitment issues we face in the UK is reflected elsewhere,” said Knights. “This is a global issue. The tunnel market in the UK is enjoying an unprecedented demand for engineering resources but the rest of the world is equally, if not more, buoyant and the resource demand remains.”

London’s water margin

Thames Tideway Tunnel: 2013 is about shifting into the procurement phase, says Phil Stride.

The last 12 months have been extremely busy for the Thames Tideway Tunnel team and 2013 is shaping up to be even busier as the project continues the transition from the development phase to delivery.


On track: Investigation work was carried out in 2012

Following the completion of our second phase of consultation and Section 48 publicity in 2012, we intend to submit our Development Consent application to the planning Inspectorate in late January. The Inspectorate is the regulatory body who manage consideration of our application, as part of the independent planning process for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects.

The 48,000 page application will take up to a year to consider and the relevant secretaries of state will make the final decision on the project. If the project is approved, we expect to start construction in 2015/16.

In tandem with our Development Consent application, we will be releasing our legacy strategy. This document will look at how we can get the maximum value for each and every pound spent on the project.

Whether it’s providing additional public space, investing in local jobs, developing skills, education or creating a cleaner, healthier river our aim is to leave behind a legacy for generations to come.

Throughout 2013, it will be as important as ever for us to continue to engage the public, particularly those communities potentially directly affected by the construction work. Procurement of the infrastructure provider (IP) and main works contracts will be a key focus in the year ahead.

We are working to finalise the details of the delivery model for the IP, which will operate separately from Thames Water and hold its own license. Once these details are finalised, we will start procurement of the IP. We expect this process to start in the spring and take about a year to complete.

In parallel to this, we intend to start procurement of the £2.2bn worth of main works contracts. We have undertaken a market engagement exercise to test the industry’s appetite for the project and to determine the best contract packaging strategy. The outcomes of this exercise are currently being incorporated into our procurement strategy, which we intend to release in early 2013.

The momentum of the project is continuing apace and we are shifting into the procurement phase of the project which will see us working closely with the investment sector and construction industry to achieve innovation and value for money.

  • Phil Stride is head of the Thames Tideway Tunnel

A crucial year for the development of Crossrail

After 12 months of strong progress on Crossrail this year, 2013 will its most important year yet, says Terry Morgan.

After 12 months of strong progress, 2013 will be our most important year to date as the project accelerates towards the peak of construction between now and 2015.


Roll out: Crossrail TBMs Phyllis and Ada were launched in west London in the spring, followed by Elizabeth and Victoria in east London in November

Once complete in 2018, Crossrail will deliver a world class railway for London and the Southeast, slashing travel times, increasing rail transport capacity and bringing an extra 1.5M people within 45 minutes of central London.

These significant benefits are matched only by the scale of what we need to deliver - through the construction of 42km of new tunnels beneath London, nine new stations, and the major upgrade of the existing rail network along Crossrail’s 118km route, we are delivering Europe’s biggest engineering project. It is also a project now being delivered on the back of a successful Olympic year where the world class venues and infrastructure of London 2012 underlined the UK’s ability to deliver high profile projects. With the baton now passed to Crossrail as the UK’s next major infrastructure project, we are determined to deliver our own gold medal winning performance, ensuring the unprecedented Crossrail project is completed on time and on budget.

The last 12 months saw some significant steps to achieving this with the year bookended by crucial milestones in the tunnelling programme. With our first two tunnel boring machines (TBMs) Phyllis and Ada launched in west London in the spring, followed by the launch of Elizabeth and Victoria in East London in November, we ended the year with tunnelling well underway on both sides of the capital.

January will see another addition to the tunnelling team as our fifth TBM Mary begins to burrow her way beneath the Thames to create part of the south eastern stretch of Crossrail. The year will then be rounded off with perhaps our biggest milestone to date when the western tunnels through central London are completed towards the end of the year - this will be a significant moment for the project and the first glimpse of 6km of new tunnels that will help transform rail transport in the capital.

Back above ground 2013 will see major works continue on the surface sections which account for around two thirds of the Crossrail route. Network Rail is carrying out a multi-billion pound upgrade to prepare for the arrival of Crossrail trains and the year ahead will see continued signalling improvement works, the installation of overhead electric equipment and track layout changes.

And, as the delivery programme ramps up, so too will our focus on recruiting the world class contractors and workforce required to deliver a project of this size. Already there are more than 7,000 workers across 40 Crossrail sites, a number that will increase throughout the year ahead. 2013 will also see further major contracts awarded, including the £400M tunnel fit-out contract, which, along with other substantial contract awards, will also resonate further along the supply chain, creating opportunities for a range of regional suppliers.

We will also continue to focus on creating opportunities for people from a range of backgrounds to take their first career steps on the Crossrail project. Some 130 apprentices are already working on the project and by the middle of 2013 we will be well past the halfway mark in our aim to deliver 400 apprenticeships through our supply chain, an area I feel passionately about having started my own career as an apprentice.

Over 1,300 unemployed people have attended our range of pre-employment courses, giving them an introduction to the construction and tunnelling industries and providing them with practical skills that will help them find employment. Other initiatives such as the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy and the new Crossrail graduate scheme will play a crucial role in meeting the growing demand for people with specialist skills in tunnelling and underground construction. Together, these schemes will ensure the skills legacy of the Crossrail project lives on well after the first new trains start running in 2018.

  • Terry Morgan is chairman of Crossrail

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.