Construction of the first 43km of a wildly ambitious 670km long, eight to 10 lane highway connecting Moscow to St Petersburg is well underway. Report from the Russian capital by Mark Hansford.
Moscow is a madly congested city. Despite boasting one of the best metro systems in the world, its nouveau riche residents prefer to spend hours every day trapped in the perma-jams that clog its vast yet still hopelessly undercapacity network of gigantic avenues spearing out from the Kremlin and its chaotic ring roads.
To sit in it is to experience capitalism at its most raw.
Yet who is to begrudge the average Russian his new found love of the automobile? For years starved of the most basic of Western luxuries, let alone personal transport, anyone who is anyone has to be seen in their car.
But Russia’s road network, laid down in more austere Soviet times, simply can’t cope. Across the country bold plans are being enacted for a massive road building programme designed to catch up with demand.
Vladimir Putin’s government says Russia needs to spend an incredible R9 trillion (£177bn) over the next decade to double the rate of road building and cope with soaring car ownership, which is forecast to reach 60M by 2020.
Moscow, is leading the way. Work is now underway on the first phase of a truly mega project to connect modern capital Moscow with its historic counterpart St Petersburg via a massive 670km long, up to 10 lane tolled highway. To be known as the M11, the government is promising the whole route will open in 2018, the year Russia hosts the World Cup.
“Much more analysis has been added to the quality control process. If something goes wrong we find out why”
Most see that timetable as wildly ambitious. But phase one at least will be open. Roughly tracking the existing M10, it will run 43km from the frighteningly busy Moscow Ring Road (MKAD) to Solnechnogorsk via Sheremetyevo Airport - one of Moscow’s three international airports.
It’s costing a shade more than R60bn (£1.2bn) and is breaking new ground as Russia’s first privately financed highway. North West Concession Company (NWCC), a Vinci-led consortium that features Russian transport operator N-Trans, was awarded a 31 year concession in July 2009.
After a delay of a year to deal with an environmental protest (see overleaf), work started on 1 September 2011. Aecom is providing technical expert services to NWCC, which includes site supervision and certification of the work of contractor Mostotrest and reviewing the work of its design institute Stroyproject.
Mostotrest has declared its construction contract is worth R49.6bn (£980M) - inclusive of VAT - alone.
The decision to use private finance is strategic. After all, it is not as if Russia is short of money; demand from the rest of Europe for access to its vast oil and gas reserves is not exactly waning. Rather, it is a reflection of the country’s position as a somewhat emerging nation when it comes to building and maintaining high quality assets.
And that’s putting it politely. “They’ve seen the light,” says Aecom regional MD for transportation Ed Plewa of the Russian Federation and its highways agency Avtodor. “They know that they need to adopt the highest quality designs to ensure the longevity of the asset.
“So the decision to go PPP is not to find new sources of money,” he emphasises. “It is because they want someone to take ownership of it for 30 years, run and maintain it, and hand it back in mint condition so it can be franchised out again.”
It makes for a rather unusual set of construction challenges. “Technically, the job is not that difficult,” says Aecom regional director for transportation and resident manager of the M10 site Phil Constable. “But culturally, it is a real education for everyone.”
Getting quality up to international standards has probably been the toughest job. While Russia’s quality controls process demands a level of inspection bordering on the extreme, it is rather more preoccupied with box ticking than it is with actual quality.
“We do at least a dozen inspections a day,” says Constable. Every single component of every single structure has to be signed off by the contractor, the contractor’s designer, the client and Aecom as technical expert. Random site checks are also made by Avtodor and Russia’s Ministry of Construction.
“So the whole process is very heavily controlled,” notes Constable. “And yet we work to improve quality all the time,” adds Plewa.
To drive up quality Aecom has introduced the concept of nonconforming reporting (NCR), whereby defects and mis-takes are reported, not to lay blame, but to examine the causes and seek to eradicate them going forward. Not surprisingly it wasn’t an immediate hit with the contractor.
“At the start the contractor didn’t like it as he felt that it implied he was doing something wrong,” explains Constable. “But it’s not for reporting fault, or making claims. It’s not black marking. It’s improving the process. He is coming round to that and is starting to embrace what is a more rigorous quality system than he is used to.”
Constable’s deputy Roman Viktorov is himself Russian, and agrees that the NCR process has changed attitudes. “Maybe there is now more emphasis on the construction process, and not just the end result,” he muses. “Much more analysis has been added to the quality control process, so if something goes wrong we find out why. We are getting used to it not just being paperwork.”
Health and safety goes hand in hand with quality, and that giant strides are being made is clearly visible on site; a year into construction and hard hats are being worn everywhere, which was not the case at the start, says Plewa. “Things have certainly changed a lot,” he says.
“They know that they need to adopt the highest quality designs to ensure the longevity of the asset”
Which is as well, as Constable is being a little modest when he plays down the technical challenges; while there are few genuinely big structures to worry about and the route is largely flat and green field, ground conditions are poor at best and then there is the small matter of the Russian climate to factor in.
“It does come with its own unique problems,” admits Constable. When NCE visited in October the project was in what is known as Russia’s “boggy season” - the damp Autumn period when the claggy ground throws up major logistical headaches and actually makes the team yearn for winter proper.
Come winter it may be as cold as -35C but at least the ground is firm and getting around the site is easier.
This claggy ground has proved to be a particular issue for concrete trucks accessing the site. With the exception of a structure spanning the Moscow Canal, the remaining 38 bridges and overpasses are modest, simple reinforced concrete structures sitting on piled foundations.
So a fair bit of concrete has been needed, delivered to site from batching plants up to 70km away.
Now, in theory, 70km is not far and this should have presented few problems. In practice, 70km is a long way in Moscow traffic, and getting the concrete to where it was needed in a still workable condition proved tricky - and got trickier when the ground got claggy.
“We have had some issues with concrete,” says Constable. “Our plants should be two to two and a half hours away and we have imposed a four hour limit on deliveries,” he says. That 90 minute buffer has been challenged more than once. “But we’ve not had to waste any yet,” he says.
Other challenges are political - an opening date of 1 May 2014 has been set, and in Russia, opening dates don’t move. And in case the message wasn’t clear enough to NWCC the contract allows for a cool £10M penalty to be applied for every day the project is late - escalating to £20M a day after one month.
It certainly focuses the mind of NWCC and its investors.
So Constable is unsurprisingly pleased that the biggest structure on the project - the 150m span steel bridge over the Moscow Canal is 40% complete. It is being push launched in two halves. The first is now nosing down on the far side of the canal.
“Last year it snowed in early November and it didn’t go until April. That is a lot of winter to deal with”
“It is programmed to take 24 months to build, which eats up a lot of a 32 month construction period. So it was pretty much on the critical path and that’s why it was so important to get off to a good start,” says Constable.
“We launched it pretty much on schedule and the nose is now down on the other side. So we are confident the programme can be achieved.
“All of the other structures are minor in comparison so are not going to have an impact on the programme,” he adds.
What does threaten to have more of an impact are hold ups caused by delays to utility diversion works. It seems the bugbear of UK construction projects also holds true in Russia.
“I am always surprised how you can take on a scheme, be seven years in planning, in which time stakeholders would have been involved, and then you get on site and they say, ‘sorry, we can’t do that for two years’,” says Constable, wryly.
Further issues have been thrown up by ground conditions in places differing rather from those shown on surveys; marshland where it was not supposed to be, for example. Solutions are being worked on right now.
It means the deadline is now tight, and with work already carrying on 24/7 throughout winter - round the clock working is deployed as a tactic to help minimise the impact of the extreme cold on activities such as asphalt-laying - Constable is keen for an early spring.
“The site basically operates all the time and in winter there is a reduction in the amount that can physically be done. So we don’t want the snow hanging around and we need a little luck,” he says. “Last year it snowed in early November and it didn’t go until April. That is a lot of winter to deal with.”
He’s far from panicking. Up to the end of September works had started on 22 of the 39 bridge structures, the subgrade level had been prepared over 13.2km of the route, the sub base was laid over 7.8km and the base course over 5.9km.
Plewa is certainly confident of hitting the May 2014 opening date. “It’s been said, so it will be done,” he says.
Time will tell whether similar confidence can be placed in the remaining 626km hitting the 2018 opening date.
But it would seem that, in Russia, if the will is there, anything is possible.
Project at a Glance
A figure approaching £1bn may sound a lot for 43km of road, but NWCC insists it is comparable with other European highways on a cost per lane kilometre basis.
After all, the right of way width varies with the number of lanes from 80m to 100m - that’s a lot of road. The road will be a dual five lane highway from the MKAD as far as the airport; it then reduces to dual four lane running as far as Zelenograd.
From there on it is initially being built as a dual, two-lane highway, with NWCC contracted to expanding it to dual four lane as soon as traffic hits an agreed level. Five interchanges along the route in addition to one at either end add to the lane kilometres.
The price tag also includes the cost of maintenance over the 25-year operations phase and with Russia’s climate there is a lot of that. Resurfacing is actually programmed in every five years, with the road likely to be relaid five or six times during the concession.
Protestors push programme
Russian environmentalists have fiercely opposed the M11 motorway as the road cuts through the Khimki Forest.
Reacting to an intense public outcry, the Russian government temporarily suspended the project in August 2010 and an alternative route was designed.
The government, however, decided to go ahead with the original plan and work began a year late in September 2011. The concession was extended from 30 to 31 years in recognition of this.
NWCC is adamant that everything is being done to minimise the environmental impact of its work: in total 100ha of woodland will be lost, a reduction on the 144ha originally envisaged. Putting this in context this is 100ha out of 2M.ha of similar woodland in the Moscow region. NWCC will spend £20M replacing five trees for every one tree cut down. Half of this has already been spent.