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Tunnelling - a time to talk

Hannah Farrant | 03 Mar 2015 | Comments

Apparently we are currently experiencing a ‘tunnel renaissance’. But what is this and why is it happening?

In recent years, the increasing density of urban life and migration of the population to living in cities (80% of us worldwide will be living in cities by 2050) has caused unprecedented strain on infrastructure. Conversely in the Middle East, rapid development – particularly in Dubai and Doha – has meant that public transport is a new and sudden prerequisite for any modern society.

But are tunnels as sustainable as they seem? Or are we putting roads out of sight and therefore out of mind? Since Boris Johnson announced his plan for a new underground ring road in London there has been much debate on the viability and financial implications of the project, estimated at a cost of approximately £30bn. Tunnels are also notably high risk construction, with the possibility of ‘losing’ a TBM due to poorer-than-expected ground conditions (such as ‘Big Bertha’ in Seattle – still trapped in the ground since 2013), or possible delays to the construction program leading to snowballing financial implications.

Tunnels should be fit for purpose, and should be constructed when the benefits outweigh the risk. Undoubtedly tunnels remove noise and air pollution that would otherwise be caused by cars, and free up space above ground which could be utilised usefully to improve the quality of life in urban settings. Where the environment is congested, the attraction is an ability to shape cities in a more sustainable way, and to create spaces which are more liveable above ground. In less developed countries, investing in public transport such as a metro/light rail network allows the promise of development and growth.

For young engineers such as myself, tunnelling provides the key to gaining an insight into a range of engineering issues (geotechnical, structural, MEP, water, planning and transportation all feature in day-to-day work), and an opportunity to carve out a niche career. With multidisciplinary projects such as Crossrail (UK), Doha Metro Gold Line (Middle East) and MTRC Express Rail Link (Hong Kong) currently under construction there are remarkable opportunities available all over the world.

These are the facts: tunnels will be increasingly sought after, the world over. With this in mind, Atkins should look to their tunnelling teams to work together and share their varied knowledge. The Tunnel Forum on March 4/5th in Doha, Qatar is one example of this. It will give Atkins tunnel engineers from all over the world a platform with which to share their knowledge and experiences. To reduce the latent risk in tunnelling as an industry, and to put ourselves on the map as experts in our field, it turns out the simplest solution is to talk!