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NEWS - Robert Goodfellow looks at some key issues affecting the tunnelling industry

Before I started to write this, James McKelvey, director of tunnelling at Black & Veatch said the issues I was about to write about have not changed since he was a young engineer in South Africa, ie how to raise the status and profile of engineering, education of project owners and politicians and management of project risk.

Infrastructure is a pass-fail business to non-engineers - it either performs its function or it does not. When it comes to road systems, the infrastructure need not function very well at all to be considered passable. The current grading system used gives a C- for our infrastructure, yet the water still works - so a C- must be okay.

Perhaps revising our grading system to a probabilistic approach that will point out an estimated time to complete failure of the system would be a more effective and easy way to comprehend the real challenge ahead.

The ultimate message is that society will pay a hugely inflated cost if we fix our infrastructure as it fails in an emergency mode, rather than plan and engineer a solution for sustainable infrastructure.

Specific to tunnelling and underground work, there is a need to educate owners about the project hazards and the risks that are inherent in underground projects.

It is critical that engineers make their project owners aware that many key risks lie directly with them and cannot be shed onto the contractor.

While contractual baselines (or reference ground conditions) do allocate risk to the contractor for certain conditions, ultimately the risks associated with a genuinely unforeseeable set of geologic conditions during construction lies with the owner. The alignment is the owner's decision - not the contractor's. The reference ground conditions are interpreted and provided by the owner - not the contractor.

Owners who anticipate embarking on a major underground construction programme should also educate themselves about the underground industry.

As part of this process, it is important for current and future owners to play a more active role in tunnel societies and take part in related events around the world for several reasons.

One such is personal interaction at a society function humanises the people in our industry.

Another is the wealth of technical papers at a conference will most likely include contractual or geological aspects, or equipment technology directly applicable to the owner's programme.

Also, the breadth of opinions expressed in sidebar discussions between engineers, contractors and suppliers can often be as equally informative as the official technical programme.

In addition, advances in technology on display in the conference exhibition provide an owner with a forum to ask experts about how they can be applied to their particular needs.

Possibly the most important aspect of owner education for underground work is the question of risk management. Without education about the underground sector, the owner has little chance to make an informed decision regarding where to set baselines or what risk level is acceptable. Engineers must accept the primary responsibility to provide education to owners about our industry and the specifics of their project.

As long as I have been around engineering, there have been complaints about external influences that interfere or run our business for us. The latest complaint in the tunnelling and underground industry is that project insurers are now making demands on us poor engineers.

The lesson seems to be that if you don't look after your own house, somebody will come in and look after it for you.

The British Tunnelling Society should be applauded for their positive response to the Association of British Insurers. The Joint Code of Practice for Risk Management of Tunnel Works in the UK (2003) is a fine document that provides requirements for risk management during planning, design and construction. Followed by the International Code of Practice in early 2006, these documents will be important references for all parties associated with underground programmes in the coming years.

But the most effective risk management for any tunnel programme is to have educated and knowledgeable parties involved, from the owner through to the engineer and contractor and on to specialty subcontractors and suppliers.

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