Euro Vision


The number of projects and the technical capabilities used by the tunnelling market in Europe has strengthened and expanded over the past two decades. Keren Fallwell reports.

Whilst work in southern Europe has slowed as a result of the recent recession and the Eurozone uncertainty, the northern European markets are forging ahead. In fact, according to BTS chairman and Balfour Beatty tunnelling manager Roger Bridge, it’s probably the best it’s ever been, in the UK at least.

Ian Gee, director of ground engineering at Atkins, agrees. “These are upbeat and exciting times. We’re very excited about what’s happening and what’s on the drawing board,” he says.

Jordi Ferrando Cuadradas, FCC Construction’s managing director for Europe, is equally positive.

“Infrastructure investment in Europe may still be down on pre-crisis levels but there are a number of high-profile tunnelling projects planned, under way and recently completed that give good reason to be optimistic,” he says.

One of the main drivers for tunnelling activity is transport. Czech Tunnelling Association chairman Ivan Hrdina says that road and rail projects in the EU-15 this year had an estimated value of USD 1.43 trillion. Of that, tunnels and bridges accounted for USD 226bn, and trams and metros USD 95.6bn.

These transport projects are motivated by a need to mitigate the environmental and economic implications of traffic congestion, and the EU’s ambition to improve transport connections across the continent.

“With increasing connectivity high up on the EU agenda, tunnelling is playing a big role,” says Ferrando.

Some of the projects already under way include the Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland, which will be the world’s longest and deepest traffic tunnel when it opens next year, and the Brenner Base Tunnel, the world’s second longest tunnel running 55km from Austria to Italy, is scheduled for completion in 2026. Both tunnels are part of the European Commission’s Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T).

Aimed at helping to transform the way goods and people move within the EU, the TEN-T will involve the construction of around 2,100km of tunnels in Europe by 2030. The ambitious 19km submerged Fehmarn Tunnel, connecting Denmark and Germany under the Baltic Sea, is also part of the network.

Forging links

Cowi’s Chief Specialist Søren Degn Eskesen, who is also the current ITA president, points out that the EU is also prioritising cross-border projects that are part of the United Nations’ E20 route which aims to establish transport connections across Europe.

However, he added that challenges of working across borders remain.

“Standards have to be matched. If you’re building a railway line you may have different electrical systems so you have to switch from one to another,” he says. “There are also different approval processes and environmental requirements. The whole planning and approval process takes longer because you have two national bodies involved.”

In addition to the construction of new tunnels, there are many projects upgrading existing road tunnels, especially in the alpine regions of Austria, Switzerland and northern Italy. “More than 1,000km of tunnels will have been built for that purpose by 2020,” says Eskesen.

To address congestion in some of Europe’s large cities, several metro projects are under way.

These include the Grand Paris Express, Copenhagen’s Metro City circle line, and the city railway line in Stockholm. In March, the joint venture of Acciona Infraestructuras and Ghella was awarded the main tunnel contract for the Follo line, Norway’s largest railway contract to date.

In the UK there is a “slight lull” in terms of site work, says Bridge, as the TBMs have finished on Crossrail and the Bond Street upgrade is coming to an end but there are plenty of projects due to start soon, or in the advanced planning stages.

“We’re probably facing the busiest workload we’ve had for a long time,” he says.

Heading south

While the tunnels market is buoyant in northern Europe and the UK, the global financial crisis and uncertainty in the Eurozone have taken their toll in some countries and, as a consequence, on some projects. Eskesen says the Lyon ring road project would have made better progress if it were not for the financial crisis. The road, designed to reduce congestion on the two highways that run through the centre of France’s third largest city, has never been completed on the western side.

Projects in countries such as Spain and Ireland, which in the past benefited from large sums of EU funding, have also fallen victim to the financial downturn. In Dublin, the two-line metro and the EUR 4bn (USD 4.3bn) DART underground – the latter involving 7.6km of twin tunnels – have been put on ice and Gee doubts they will be realised in the next five to 10 years.

“There was a great enthusiasm for those capital projects in the heydey of European investment in that country but that’s stopped. The Irish economy is starting to turn around and there are a couple of tunnelling schemes coming up in water supply and waste water in Dublin but the really major tunnelling projects are mired at the moment,” he says.

Labour gap

The long bidding and development process for major projects slows down the tunnelling sector, says Ferrando, although it is not surprising, given the scale of investment required – and there are rewards.

“On the back of Crossrail, projects like HS2 and Thames Tideway will require huge amounts of expertise to deliver and they represent a healthy pipeline for the UK market.” Many of the projects in the starting blocks will push new boundaries and tackling these is helped by industry collaboration and lessons learned from previous jobs.

“Collaboration has almost become the norm. Projects are now larger and there’s an expectation that most projects of GBP 100m-plus will be delivered by a joint venture,” says Gee.

The ITA has several committees working on technical guidelines in order to have new ideas accepted by the market more quickly and Eskesen expects technical advances to continue.

“We are now building tunnels that we wouldn’t have been able to years ago,” says Eskesen. “Nearly every year we see a new record in terms of diameter or links or depths of tunnelling projects, and I think it will continue.”

Every project has its challenges and “if they were easy they would have been done before”, says Bridge, and the next phase of UK tunnels will be no exception. “Work in and under London is always challenging with the structures you have to interact with and the ever-growing use of the underground space. It will be an interesting challenge if there’s an overlap in projects – the Northern Line extension, Thames Tideway, Silvertown. If they’re all trying to use river resources then the logistical support of those schemes will create a challenge,” he says.

Outside London HS2 will also present logistics issues with the length of some of the tunnels and the challenges of working on rural sites. While none of them will be an easy project, says Bridge, they will receive their “fair and due attention and the problems will be overcome” and they are indicative of the healthy appetite for infrastructure and tunnelling. “It’s a good time to be a tunneller,” he says.


* This is a version of an article that first appeared in Tunnels & Tunnelling:

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