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talking point

Despite a few high profile projects, UK tunnelling activity has all but stopped, says David Donaldson.

This month sees Underground Construction 2001, the international exhibition and symposium for tunnelling, pipejacking and piling being held in London. This coincides with the start of site work on Section 2 of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link - the London tunnels.

There will be much talk by those fortunate souls involved in the project and it is hoped that they will lend support to the symposium which has been the shop window of tunnelling and underground works in the UK since the 1970s.

There is much to discuss. Massive investment is being made in tunnel boring machines, piling plant, diaphragm wall equipment and all manner of ancillary kit. Construction teams are being assembled to undertake tunnelling, heavy civils and brownfield remediation tasks including a myriad of geotechnical processes, all of which will be recorded, reported, analysed and debated for years to come.

All good stuff, you may say. Well, it is for the companies and individuals involved. It will keep them busy for a few years and soak up much of the expertise available within the UK tunnelling industry.

This is just as well because, save for two other notable projects - the National Grid Company's 20km tunnel from Elstree to St Johns Wood in London and the BAA airside road tunnel at Heathrow - activity in the industry has all but ceased. All over the country companies that traditionally rely on tunnelling for a significant part of their workload now have yards full of TBMs, shields, drilling and grouting plant and miles of track. For the first time in the memory of most people, outside London there is no new tunnelling work of any significance.

What has caused this sorry state of affairs? The water companies have long been the main provider of new tunnelling projects and much work has been done in recent years in compliance with the EU Coastal and Urban Waste Water Directives.

However, the water companies appear to be playing games with OFWAT, the Government's water industry regulator, as they struggle to meet efficiency targets.

It is reported that last year's capital spending by the 10 water companies in England and Wales was underspent by £700M. Some of this has undoubtedly contributed to the lack of tunnelling work, but there is no guarantee that things will change when spending resumes, as it seems likely that other priorities for capital expenditure will prevail.

What is a tunneller to do? Other large projects are rumoured to be on the horizon. The Stonehenge and Hindhead road tunnels, Heathrow Terminal 5 infrastructure and new tunnel assets for the National Grid Company are all due, we are told, to commence in the not too distant future.

However these projects will not alone sustain a viable tunnelling industry. The prospect of Crossrail and the Chelsea-Hackney Link being built is in the gift of those with small minds, mean spirits and little imagination - ie the people we misguidedly elect every four or five years to run the country, to look after our best interests and generally improve our lot.

It is clear they have little perception of what modern infrastructure should be. While we cast envious looks at road, rail and metro infrastructure throughout Europe, our own systems are disintegrating and systems being upgraded are, among other things, subject to political interference causing confusion, delay and extra cost.

Do we look to Europe for workload? The tender lists for CTRL included French, German and Spanish contractors. There is every likelihood that future large projects will attract even more of our EU cousins.

Why do we not reciprocate? There is, of course, the eternal problem of 'L'Anglais homme avec son sang froid'(the Englishman with his usual bloody cold) which prevents us participating in European projects. Whereas our continental competitors can pick up our tender documents and understand what they say, we cannot easily do the same with French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese or Greek documents. We seem curiously unwilling to do things the European way and form joint ventures (although outside Europe, British contractors have been very successful worldwide, on their own and in joint venture).

It seems the dearth of UK workload will see a watershed in how tunnelling and associated geotechnical processes are procured. In many instances this has already happened. Those of us who want to stay in the game will have to leg it a bit faster around the block.

Above all we must develop a voice and use it to convince government that a better way of doing things requires much more capital investment in our infrastructure. Underground Construction 2001 will see a gathering of all the usual suspects. Perhaps we can use the opportunity to generate interest in finding a way to stimulate our industry.

David Donaldson is the chairman of consultant Donaldson Associates, which specialises in geotechnical design and the design of underground structures. He is a former chairman of the British Tunnelling Society and represents BSI at CEN, drafting new European standards for the Safety of Tunnelling Equipment.

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