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The Man With Tunnel Vision

Tunnelling is the answer to society’s urban problems, according to Halcrow’s Martin Knights. Claire Symes met him to talk about the industry’s prospects and the drivers for future growth.

Few people can boast the right to drive their sheep across a bridge in the Croatian city of Sarajevo, but Halcrow’s Martin Knights can after being presented with an honorary presidency of the Croatian Tunnelling Association.

It’s just one of many accolades Knights has earned in his career in tunnelling.

And despite current economic difficulties, he believes there has never been a better time to be working in the sector.

“It used to be a boom and bust industry, but now we seem to be on a track of continuous growth,” says Knights, who is Halcrow’s global practice leader for tunnelling and earth engineering and sciences.

“More and more infrastructure investors are turning to tunnelling to overcome urban issues and, with the forecasted growth in city-dwelling populations over the next 20 years, I can see the demand for tunnelled solutions increasing further.

“Tunnels offer efficient land use for transport, utilities and public health systems, which are all key to modern urban developments. Tunnels are starting to be included in masterplans to overcome the scarcity of space - if it isn’t needed at the surface then it should be placed underground.”

As an example, Knights points to the development in Abu Dhabi that is transferring the city centre from the downtown area to a new sustainable development.

“Tunnels offer efficient land use for transport, utilities and public health systems, which are all key to modern urban developments”

“They are a starting from below ground as the masterplan,” he says. “Tunnelling really plays into the Arab culture of wanting to create a great environment and caring about the legacy that it leaves.”

Knights was also instrumental in proposing a tunnelled solution to connect island developments in the region.

“One of the senior civil servants was talking about using bridge connections,” he says. “I suggested that submersed tube tunnels would be a better solution and helped to organise a two-day workshop on the technology through my then position as president of the International Tunnelling Association (ITA). Construction of the tunnels is now under way.”

According to Knights, advances in tunnelling technology have also helped to bolster the industry with improvements in mechanisation, flexible lining support and surveying and IT.

“This technology is adding confidence for clients,” he says. “This is enabling projects like the connection of Hong Kong with Macau and Denmark to Germany to become viable.”

“He told me that there is no physical limit and anything is possible”

Following announcement of the order for the world’s largest tunnel boring machine for Russia’s Orlovski Tunnel, Knights asked Herrenknecht founder Martin Herrenknecht about the limiting factor for ever larger TBMs.

“He told me that there is no physical limit and anything is possible,” he says. “Improvements in efficiency of rock cutting and soft ground support are helping, along with the pioneering approach of the people at Herrenknecht, Robbins and Lovat.

The innovative culture is still there and has delivered some incredible achievements in the last 20 years.”

Knights says that many recent UK projects have helped to improve tunnelling technology.

“The use of flexible linings at King’s Cross helped to push the boundaries,” he explains. “The A3 Hindhead tunnel made advances in waterproofing, profiling and durability. Crossrail will also do that in terms of the size and shape.

“The advances in IT and instrumentation have been significant.

Crossrail is using an integrated instrumentation system that will offer more realistic decision making.

Lessons have been learnt from the collapses at Heathrow, Singapore and Sao Paulo where the information was collected, but not understood sufficiently to be reacted to.”

Innovation opportunities

It is the bespoke nature of the tunnelling sector that has kept Knights inspired throughout his career. “There is real variety on the big projects and a great opportunity for innovation,” he says.

Knights studied civil engineering at the University of Manchester. “I was always interested in building things and applied science,” he says. “Heavy civil engineering and geotechnics were my principal interests at university.

I liked the empirical nature of it.

“I graduated at the time when the North Sea was just being developed and there were a lot of interesting projects under way.”

Knights’ first job was working for Mott, Hay & Anderson on the Second Mersey Tunnel in the late 1960s. “I had the choice of projects at the time, but the Mersey project was interesting and paid the best,” he says. “It was also a good time to be in Liverpool.”

In his career Knights has worked with Howard Humphreys, before joining Halliburton which merged into Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR).

More recently he worked for Jacobs after KBR’s UK business was bought out by the company.

He joined Halcrow a year ago as global director of tunnelling and took on his current role when the company was restructured earlier this year.

While he has worked on many projects, some have stuck in his mind more than others.

He says one was his work on the Large Hadron Collider at Cern between 1996 and 2003 when he was involved in upgrading the 1970s facility for higher energy collisions.

Another is construction of the Dublin Port road tunnel. “It was interesting being in Ireland at the height of the boom there,” he says. “We also proved that a large infrastructure project could be successfully delivered there when many had doubts due to the past history in the region.

The work was carried out by a Japanese, Irish and Anglo joint venture and it was a real melting pot and coming together of global expertise.”

As a judge for this year’s International Tunnelling Awards, Knights has had the opportunity to look at innovation and global expertise that have helped deliver a wide range of global projects.

“The networking opportunity offered by the ITA makes it valuable”

“The awards are good - it is a way of recognising innovation,” he says. “They allow achievements to shine through.”

Knights is well placed to judge the awards as he has recently stood down as president of the ITA - a post he held for three years - and is now serving as past president to support new president: Korea University’s In-Mo Lee.

During his term, Knights put considerable effort into modernising the association with more industry involvement and trying to speed up the work of the working group.

“The networking opportunity offered by the ITA makes it valuable,” he says. “The annual congress is also a good forum with lots of papers about the latest developments and new projects.”

His achievements as president of the ITA were recognised last year with the award of the James Clark Memorial Medal (see box).

Growth areas

There is a lot of activity in the tunnelling market right now, says Knights. “One of the biggest growth areas is in China where, although most of the work will be undertaken by local contractors, there will be a real need for western technology.

“Other areas that are very active include Singapore and Hong Kong.

Tunnelling work in South America is also growing with projects in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Venezuela and Panama.

There is potential in North America too, he says. “Obama recently said there was a need for ‘construction, construction, construction’.

There is a real need for high speed rail and metro improvements - the eastern part of the country has ageing assets, while the western part is trying to cope with population growth.

“In Europe there is a real focus on long-term projects such as Crossrail in London and high-speed networks in Germany. Scandinavia is also focusing on underground solutions and Helsinki has recently published an underground masterplan.

“It is good to see planners considering the third dimension in all developments.”

Knights describes the growth in tunnelling as an Olympic sport. “There seems to be some kind of synchronised tunnelling linked to hosting the games,” he says. “We saw it happen in Turin and Beijing.

For the London Games, installing electricity cables in tunnels below the site was key to allowing the site to be developed.

“Crossrail construction may have an interim impact, but property values after the work is completed will improve”

Road and rail tunnels to get to the 2014 winter games site in Sochi, Russia, are well under way and the Rio metro is to be extended to the Olympic site for the 2016 games.”

While all these tunnelling projects are aimed at improving quality of life, there is still the issue of financing them.

But Knights says the rise in land values could help in this area.

“There is a clear correlation between the opening of a tunnel and improvement in house prices,” he says. “There was an article in The Sunday Times that reported that house prices in the Hindhead area have risen by 5-10% since the completion of the tunnel.

“Crossrail construction may have an interim impact, but property values after the work is completed will improve.

The same happened with the East London line. There is also the possibility of developing the air space over new stations.

“And in Seattle in the US, replacing viaducts with tunnels around the coastline could have a massive impact on land values as well as improving the area. Surely this can be taxed in some way to help pay for the development?”

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