Reflecting on 2015 21 Dec 2015

Peter Kenyon, TunnelTalk

With 2015 drawing to a close, the underground construction industry can reflect with great pride on completion during the year of some of the largest projects currently on the books. In the UK, mechanised excavation of the 21km of twin running tunnels for London’s Crossrail was completed in May when the last of eight Herrenknecht machines procured for the job broke through the headwall at Victoria Station to complete the western drives and end three years of tunnelling. Attention over the next two years will now focus on M&E and track fit out ahead of a scheduled 2018 opening.

Focus on major tunnelling works of 2015

In Turkey it was another Herrenknecht machine – a 13.5m diameter Mixshield – that successfully pushed technological boundaries and a constant hydrostatic pressure of up to 12 bar to complete the critical underwater section of the 14.5km highway mega project between Europe and Asia. Designed to withstand a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, the drive required a number of innovations to meet the technical challenges, including an accessible cutterhead in free air and a disc cutter rotation monitoring system to provide early notice of the need to change disc cutters and wear detection bars.

The boundaries between the impossible and the possible continue to be pushed when it comes to TBM capability, and in 2015 the European Union-funded NeTTUN research and development project moved closer to implementing a set of innovations that look set to further revolutionise the possibilities for safe TBM excavation. NFM reports that it will be mounting a groundbreaking detection system (TULIPS) on its TBM that will excavate the first section of the 57km-long Lyon–Turin railway tunnel next year (2016), while research and development continues on a fully robotised system for replacing disc cutters in conditions where hyperbaric interventions would normally be necessary.

In Kuala Lumpur attention now focuses on construction procurement of the east-west Line 2 of the Klang Valley MRT following final TBM breakthrough in April on the 9.5km central underground section of twin tube alignment of Line 1. The project marked the debut of Herrenknecht’s Variable Density TBM technology that is specially adapted for excavation through karstic limestone geology, and also featured machines from CREG of China as it continued to show evidence of making good on its ambitions to expand machinery supply outside the home market.

Ongoing projects

In the USA progress continued throughout 2015 on the US$2.6 billion Clean Rivers Program in Washington DC, where breakthrough was achieved on the 7,200m Blue Plains tunnel; the TBM for the 823m First Street tunnel was launched; progress began on the 3,800m Anacostia River tunnel; and procurement for construction of the 7,925m long North East Boundary Tunnel got under way.

In Seattle, Sound Transit continued to make progress on its delivery of its ambitious voter-driven city-wide LRT system as machines from Robbins and Hitachi made progress on the new Northgate Link; the opening of the U-Link should take place in early 2016; and a contractor was appointed for the underground Bellevue SEM section of the new East Link.

In the same city there was no TBM progress for a second year running on the SR99 Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement tunnel for Bertha, at 17.6m in diameter still the largest-diameter machine currently in the ground. After suffering main bearing damage in 2013, the whole of 2015 was spent managing repairs and lifting the machine out of the ground ahead of what should be relaunch in early 2016. The Dragados/Tutor Perini contractor JV began backfilling the recovery shaft in December. At the same time, progress on the cut and cover sections, and on other elements of the project, were accelerated to minimise slippage. News that a consortium of insurance companies have indicated refusal to pay out on a US$80 million TBM breakdown policy added further tension to the relationship between contractor and owner, which did not always run smoothly – and were not helped by WSDOT’s controversial decision to axe the independent Expert Review Panel that had been overseeing project progress.

2015 was also a good year for Terratec, whose machines achieved a series of breakthrough successes on the Delhi Metro Phase III expansion; while in Norway there was a historic first TBM breakthrough in 20 years as a Robbins gripper machine completed the first of two hydro tunnels at Røssåga in the frozen Arctic Circle. Selection of four Herrenknecht TBMs for the Oslo-Ski Follo Line high speed rail excavation marks further evidence of growing confidence in TBM technology in a country where drill+blast is more the norm.

Meanwhile, progress on the 64km world record Brenner Base Tunnel between Austria and Italy, scheduled for opening in 2026, continued to make progress in 2015 with the launch of a 7.93m Herrenknecht TBM on the Tulfes-Pfons Lot of 15km of central exploratory tunnel.

In New Zealand the return drive of the 14.5m diameter Herrenknecht EPBM for the Waterview highway connection in Auckland was completed on schedule to end mechanised excavation of yet another major global mega-TBM project. TunnelTalk continues to maintain its popular list of the largest machines in the world via the popular and regularly updated Tracking the world’s mega-TBMs feature.

Industry highlights and Company News

Moving away from the major projects themselves, 2015 saw the continuation of a growing trend towards consolidation and collaboration as equipment manufacturers, contractors and design consultancies all looked to increase competitiveness and achieve economies of scale through their ability to offer total solutions.

On the contractor side Salini-Impregilo, which was named Contractor of the Year at this year’s ITA Awards, purchased the Denmark-based arm of Italian tunnelling firm Seli SpA in a strategic move aimed at strengthening its underground construction operations and enabling it to bid more aggressively for additional international contracts. Formerly a wholly-owned unit of the Seli SpA group, Seli Tunnelling Denmark has been the key underground player in the construction of the US$3.8 billion Copenhagen Cityringen in the heart of the Danish capital.

In what was a year of substantial change at Seli SpA, the part of the operation established in 2014 as a separate arm called Seli Overseas – which was launched as a new international tunnelling contractor – was itself acquired by Italian contractor Grandi Lavori Fincosit.

In March further consolidation on the contracting side took place as Implenia of Switzerland completed its acquisition of Germany-based Bilfinger SE’s Construction Business Division, including its tunnelling business unit, in a deal worth approximately €230 million. The two companies have previously worked together successfully on the Zurich Cross City Tunnel and the Brenner Tunnel.

On the TBM manufacturing and equipment supply side, Japanese Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) prepared to consolidate its TBM manufacturing business by teaming up with rival Japanese TBM manufacturer IHI and steel manufacturing giant JFE Engineering. The move will see MHI take a stake in a new company to be created next year (2016) from the 2010 joint venture partnership between the shield tunnelling divisions of Ishikawa Jima/Harinna Heavy Industries (IHI Corporation) and JFE Engineering, who are together now known as Japan Tunnel Systems Corporation – JTSC. The deal is further demonstration of the type of consolidation within the TBM manufacturing business sector that has affected, in recent years, Caterpillar (Lovat), Aker Wirth, and NFM.

NFM, meanwhile, penned an exclusive partnership agreement in December with belt conveyor and rail backup system specialist Mühlhäuser that will enable the Chinese-owned French TBM manufacturer to offer a total tunnelling solution to new clients. The collaboration builds upon an existing partnership that has been forged by working together on the Lyon-Turin rail tunnel project, for which an 11.2m diameter NFM TBM featuring full Mühlhäuser backup will be launched next year (2016).

On the consultancy side, too, 2015 was another year of change. Hatch and Mott MacDonald announced the separation of the Hatch Mott MacDonald (HMM) joint venture into two distinct businesses, with HMM’s Canada business set to become part of Hatch, while HMM’s US business will become part of Mott MacDonald. And as the year drew to a close COWI announced that Jenny Engineering – which it acquired in 2013 – would finally be integrated fully into its North American operations from January 1 (2016).

Other notable highlights of 2015 included celebration by TBM manufacturer Terratec of its 25th anniversary; and Robbins’ announcement of a new series of hybrid Crossover machines that offer dual purpose capability: the XRE for rock/EPB applications, the XSE for slurry/EPB applications, and the XRS for rock and slurry applications.

Of course any review of the highlights of 2015 can only be a snapshot of the underground construction work taking place in the world today, and the project pipeline going forward shows no sign of slowing any time soon. For a fuller picture of 2015 TunnelTalk will, as it has since 2010, be producing its full colour Annual Review of the highlights of the year. Currently in production, this popular printed review of the best of our online content of 2015, will be distributed at the major conferences held throughout the year, which TunnelTalk continues to attend as a matter of routine. To all our readers and advertisers we wish you a very happy holiday season, and we look forward to meeting up with friends and colleagues, old and new, throughout what should be an equally busy 2016.

Add your comment

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and comments. You share in the wider tunnelling community, so please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language professional.
In case of an error submitting Feedback, copy and send the text to
Name :

Date :

Email :

Phone No :

   Security Image Refresh
Enter the security code :
No spaces, case-sensitive