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Tunnelling sector must overcome cost and resource challenges

As delegates at the NCE Tunnelling 20Twenty conference in Hong Kong heard last week, the 21st century world will need more underground infrastructure if it is to deliver much needed sustainable urban development.

“The only choice for metropolitan cities will be to go underground,” said International Tunnelling Association president In-Mo Lee. “We need to promote the use of underground structures for transport, leisure, flood control, storage and power and water supply as key to sustainable urban development.”

Every major city in the world is struggling with transport congestion and the need to find more effective and efficient ways of travelling and communicating.

Every major city is wrestling with increasing populations and a lack of surface space in which to house and employ them.

Add to this the need to cope with increasing volumes of waste water and the need to protect against floods from rising sea levels and the role of modern underground structures becomes clear.

However, the question for many governments around the world remains precisely how to embrace the economic and social opportunities that construction of new rail and road transport, water management and utility infrastructure will clearly bring.

Because right now, constructing anything underground, particularly in the West, comes with a high price tag. Building underground is usually difficult and risky and is hugely technically challenging. So as Crossrail chief engineer Chris Dulake told delegates, anyone thinking of investing in such costly infrastructure as an economic driver really needs to properly understand the benefits that come with these high costs.

“The haste to put stimulus into the economy, if not properly thought through could potentially deliver the wrong investment,” he said, “We need to really understand whether the costs of delivering infrastructure really provide the benefits.”

Given the pressure on the public purse across Europe and the United States, tunnelling engineers will, he pointed out, need to work harder than ever to identify and then explain the benefits of infrastructure investment, while all the time ensuring that the cost of delivery is kept as low as possible.

Clearly, recession-struck western economies face major challenges in terms of making the case for investment. These are different to those of other parts of the world, not least the emerging nations of the Asia-Pacific region where the challenge is more about maintaining the pace of investment.

As Professor Bai Yun of Shanghai’s Tongji University pointed out, China currently invests 15% to 20% of its GDP in infrastructure as the nation races to meet the needs of an increasingly urbanised society.

“Right now in China around 46% of the population is living in urban areas,” he said. “But this is increasing by 1% every year. We need to plan our infrastructure to cope with these extra millions of people living in cities.”

The fact that the conference was in Hong Kong highlighted the continued growth in tunnelling activity in this region.

As MTR Corporation projects director TC Chew explained, the Special Administrative Region’s railway network is being expanded at pace with five new underground lines currently under construction or at the advanced planning stage.

Similarly in Latin America, which according to Halcrow global tunnelling director Martin Knights is set to be tunnelling’s next workload hot spot. Brazil, Mexico and Argentina would, he said, increasingly drive the global market with the region emerging as “the global hidden gem”.

He pointed to projects such as Argentina’s Buenos Aires water supply and stormwater programme, Brazil’s new high speed rail programme and metros ahead of the 2016 Olympics as examples of underground infrastructure that was set to transform nations and drive economies.

Mexico’s National Water Commission director Rafael Paredes also explained that Mexico City was pressing ahead with a whole programme of new water and transport projects.

These are designed to cope with demand growth following a doubling of the capital’s population to 20M since 1975.

There is also, of course, the Middle East which will continue as a key region for growth in tunnelling work over the next decade with metro and water projects in the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait and rail projects in Qatar ahead of the 2022 Fifa football World Cup.

However, the one unifying global tunnelling challenge presented to delegates was the lack of available engineering skills and tunnelling resources to meet this great actual and potential demand for underground space.

As delegates agreed, this shortage is a worry. Boosting training is an area that every nation needs to embrace as a global opportunity.

If the tunnelling community is to meet global demand to provide sustainable infrastructure it must focus on nurturing its future talent.

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