Tunnelling: a historical solution to a modern day dilemma

Philip Hoare | 22 Dec 2016 | Comments

The complexities of the modern day world are becoming increasingly difficult to negotiate, and so too is the importance of meeting demanding needs.

The UK population is projected to reach 70 million by mid-2027, and the consequences of this on our transport infrastructure will be profound. It would be fairly difficult to overstate how important our ability to respond to these demands is. Reinforcing this sentiment are current and future projections of journey capacity and congestion. The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) calculated that there were 1.7 billion passenger journeys on the UK’s rail network in the last financial year. Meanwhile on road, highway congestion already costs £2 billion each year and this is set to rise to around £10 billion, by 2040.

But challenging circumstances; such as population growth, the need to create better transportation links and the importance of maintaining economic stability and growth, are not unique to the modern day. For example, responding to increasing world trade through river freight, and with no alternative regional routes across the river, the Thames Tunnel opened in 1843. Described locally as the eighth wonder of the world, the Thames Tunnel was a leading innovative solution responding to the rise of a global economy and its new challenges.

Fast forward to the present day, and the benefits of tunnelling aren’t so dissimilar. Space, particularly within an urban setting is a commodity, and current competition for its use has long exceeded that of the past. Yet the timeless engineering feat of tunnelling still provides a more efficient use of space that can better accommodate the forecast growth in travel demand. Strategically placed transport links are fundamental to unlocking housing and supporting regeneration. Tunnelling capabilities are one of the options that can support this, providing new links to rural growth areas and expanding connectivity. In turn, increased connectivity benefits users by cutting journey time, enhancing passenger experience and supporting integration of multiple modes of transport.

The challenge to deliver these benefits requires strategic planning and design, combined with the required skills and level of investment. Projects such as A303 Stonehenge, Crossrail 2, the Bakerloo Line extension, HS2 and various options for TransPennine tunnels to improve connectivity in the North provide some opportunity to respond accordingly.

Yet the task doesn’t come without other challenges. Uncertainty in the political landscape leading up to the EU referendum and surrounding the negotiating terms of the UK’s departure will undoubtedly affect the economy, as reflected in the autumn statement. Although the UK economy performed well preceding the referendum and has continued to show resilience since, shortage in construction skills has fast climbed up the political agenda in the wake of Brexit. The root cause, however, has been longer in the making.

The construction industry has suffered from a historical lack of investment that has impacted our pool of talent. Essentially, skills are lost when investment is low. With an upcoming pipeline of projects to deliver, and a welcome increase in investment towards it, we need to accelerate development to broaden our pool of skills. Ensuring we have the right partnerships and resources in place to meet these demands is key. Therefore delivering major projects relies on our ability to harness, develop and retain highly skilled tunnelling engineers. By providing long term opportunities we must create an environment that workers can thrive in. Seeking out a workforce equipped with the experience to build world class infrastructure.

Tapping into unconventional skill sets from individuals with non-engineering backgrounds could open up new possibilities to encourage innovation, creativity, and pursue ideas that facilitate adaptive and progressive infrastructure. Looking to other sectors such as those with a manufacturing background could enable a shift to a more productised approach, with off-site manufacture the dominant feature in construction of physical infrastructure. As technology plays a more significant role in transport, with a shift to robotics for routine construction and maintenance activities, as well as connected autonomous vehicles operating within a 'system', systems design and programing skills will become more critical.

Building on this cross cutting approach to skills is the importance of attracting future engineers. Academies such as the Crossrail’s Tunnelling Academy or Atkins’ Ground Engineering Academy provide much needed opportunities to nourish the younger generation. The activities of the British Tunnelling Society and its Young Members committee provide a platform for young people to network, understand more about the tunnelling industry and gain insight into what a future career could entail. Removing the mystery and fear of the unknown through these positive and engaging initiatives could unlock vital future resource.