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Tunnelling projects need collaboration to succeed

Collaborative working is top of the agenda again this week, with Network Rail telling NCE how “behavioural fit” not price will determine which contractors get a slice of its £23bn pie in the next five year spending period.

But with the track operator also clear that to get the most out of its collaborative frameworks it must work more consistently with fewer suppliers, it is obvious that there will be losers. The question is: how many?

Network Rail clearly expects some of Britain’s biggest names to fall short of the mark, warning them to get ready for life as a tier two subcontractor. It will be a big jolt.

But will it be enough to jolt them into action? Because, as High Speed 2 promoter HS2 Ltd’s chairman Doug Oakervee told 350 tunnellers at NCE’s International Tunnelling Awards in London last week, his project, like many others, will fail unless construction teams change the way they work together.

“If the project follows business as usual it will be a failure,” he said, referring to the ambition of Treasury body Infrastructure UK to make time savings of 50% and cut costs by 30% on the project.

And it’s simple – unless there is confidence that these targets can be hit there is no HS2, no Crossrail 2, and no great future for the UK tunnelling industry.

It’s ironic because the awards were brought back to London this year because the UK capital is such a global tunnelling hot spot with Crossrail, Thames Water , National Grid and London Underground all in the midst of huge projects. Yet only National Grid took away a prize, collecting the environmental initiative award for efforts to reduce muck-away lorry movements with Costain, Skanska and others.

The rest of the awards all went abroad, with the Italians the biggest winners, scooping three for the record-breaking Sparvo tunnel.

In awarding Autostrade per l’Italia the top client gong, the judges remarked how it had set new standards for the way an intelligent client should behave, engaging and working closely with the entire supply chain.

But it was helped by the “truly joint approach” taken by lead contractor Toto Construzioni, itself named contractor of the year, and the rest of the project team.

The use of innovative solutions, attention to planning and risk management and the engagement of staff and stakeholders makes this an exemplar for delivering a complex tunnelling project, they said.  

It’s exactly the sort of thing Oakervee and HS2 wants. But will it get it?

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has calculated by 2015, 4,000 people will be working in the tunnelling sector as Crossrail work tails off and Thames Water’s Thames Tunnel gets going. This workload should be then sustained by the next tunnelling projects such as High Speed 2 and Crossrail 2. The prize is obvious. Now the industry needs to demonstrate the culture and behavioural change to make it a reality.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor

Readers' comments (2)

  • stephen gibson

    Could the key element of Autostrade per L'Italia's success be that its not like the Highway Agency at all. Its privately owned by the Benneton Family and raised most money from private tolls.

    As such, it can be more strategically focused on what adds long term value than the Highway Agency.

    All the evidence from that decade has shown that longer and larger "collaborative frameworks" restrict competition. It directly results in costs going up and the value goes down for clients. You don't bulk buy engineering services like they are a manufactured product. Each is unique.

    If you want innovative businesses to support the next generation, you need to break up the "framework cartels" and tender projects openly and fairly such that small businesses can compete and win work with their lower overheads and greater innovation.

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  • I believe that engaging with the market early and providing time for contractor and client to work together collaboratively, thereby also allowing the contractor to develop innovative solutions early, often represents the most appropriate procurement solution. As Mark suggests, with the sustained workload in tunnelling ahead of us we have an opportunity to move forward in terms of tunnelling procurement best practice. However there is no "one size fits all" solution, and clients and projects vary in terms of business drivers and political factors. I do accept Stephen's comments that complacency is a risk on long term frameworks.

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