All set to go

Mission Future
Down Under

Reading time: 9 minutes | August 2020

Infrastructure ambitions drive change forward

Australia and New Zealand are launching bold and groundbreaking infrastructure programs for the coming decades. They are expected to trigger far-reaching impulses for economic and social prosperity. A report on hands-on shaping of the future. 

The Australian Government has pledged an impressive Aus$10bn (€5.9bn) to be spent on transport infrastructure over the next 10 years. It's a program aimed to improve transport links between cities, reduce congestion and increase the efficiency of freight movements. Australia's population of 25 million is predicted to grow to around 40 million by 2050, fuelled by the rapid expansion of Sydney and Melbourne.

“THE LOGIC IS THAT WE HAVE GROWING POPULATIONS IN OUR CITIES THAT ARE CURRENTLY UNDERSERVED BY THE EXISTING INFRASTRUCTURE. THE GOVERNMENT HAS RECOGNISED THAT ECONOMIC GROWTH GOES HAND-IN-HAND WITH TRANSPORT AND INFRASTRUCTURE DEVELOPMENT.“

says Grant Bowery, Infrastructure Director at global professional services business Turner & Townsend in Sydney.

British by birth, Bowery is now settled in Sydney with an Australian family, bringing his experiences from the UK and the Middle East to his new home market.

Meanwhile, across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand has substantial plans of its own. Considering that New Zealand covers a fraction of the area of its larger neighbour, with a population of just under 5 million, its plans are equally bold. In January this year, its Government revealed a NZ$12 bn (€6.6bn) infrastructure fund, with nearly NZ$7bn (€3.8bn) earmarked for transport, and NZ$3bn (€1.7bn) added in its recent May budget.

Both governments recognise that infrastructure spending goes hand-in-hand with economic growth. As the world fights to recover from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, this consideration becomes more important than ever.

Combine these transport infrastructure plans with ongoing programs to upgrade water infrastructure and a fast-emerging renewable energy sector, and there is a healthy pipeline of work for the tunnelling communities in Australia and New Zealand. But delivering this healthy pipeline raises questions for both countries around funding, shortages in skills and materials, risk allocation and political short-termism.

Tunnelling boom

Australia's current and planned tunnelling projects tell a story of this vast country's expansion. Metro projects in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, major road developments to ease congestion in cities, water and sewage programs to extend systems which are now at capacity, and the 1,700km Inland Rail freight scheme that will run between Melbourne and Brisbane. There is also a new story to be told about a more sustainable future, with pumped hydro schemes to store electricity from huge solar arrays and ongoing studies into high-speed rail as an alternative to flying.

Australia's tunnellers, alongside colleagues from overseas, are already hard at work on a raft of major projects. Harry Asche consults the list of 13 current tunnelling projects in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia which he has assembled.

“WE HAVE HAD A GOOD NUMBER OF TUNNELLING PROJECTS IN THE LAST 10 YEARS, AND THERE ARE YET MORE PROJECTS COMING OUT NOW. THERE IS 380KM OF TUNNELLING CURRENTLY UNDERWAY. THAT'S BIG!“

says Asche, President of the Australian Tunnelling Society and Design Director at Aurecon.

From the list of projects, Asche picks a handful that demonstrate how Australia's tunnelling practice is developing. Among them is the country's biggest public transport project, Sydney Metro: a brand-new network with 31 stations, 66km of track and the country's first driverless trains. And there's West Gate Tunnel in Victoria, with the country's two largest diameter tunnel boring machines (TBMs). This project is also notable for its new layout, says Asche, with mechanical and electrical equipment situated in a new chamber under the road deck, accessible 24/7.

In contrast to many countries, which are focusing on rail to ease road congestion, Australia is balancing a strong pipeline of both road and rail projects in response to growing traffic volumes. When Sydney's WestConnex and Western Harbour Tunnel Beaches Link come into play later this decade, New South Wales' will have five times as many kilometres of motorway tunnel as it did before.

Renewable future

Central to Australia’s ambitions for renewable energy is the ability to store energy. Pumped hydro schemes effectively act as huge batteries, with solar or wind energy used to pump water to a higher storage reservoir during times of low demand to be released back down to a lower reservoir to create hydroelectricity when it is needed.

“With Australia looking to move to solar and wind power, there’s a need for batteries which is where pump storage comes in,” says Asche. “Old mines are ideal because they are likely to have water, the height difference and electrical transmission infrastructure.”

New South Wales’ Snowy 2.0 project, which will link two existing dams and create a new underground power station with 27km of tunnels, was the first pumped hydro scheme off the blocks. Kidston Hydro 2 has also just been awarded, the first such project in the world to make use of pits from a disused gold mine, with a sister project to create a 270MW solar farm alongside it.

The other vital resource for Australia is water, a point that was horribly underlined with the long-running droughts experienced at the beginning of this year. The country is investing in making water storage more resilient, says Bowery, as a matter of urgency.

“We have downpours rather than a steady amount of rainfall spread over longer periods, so the infrastructure needs to be altered to deal with that,” he explains. Projects include alterations to water infrastructure, such as raising dams so that water from huge rainfall events can all be stored and adding distribution networks so that water can be pumped between storage facilities if needed.

Water and sewage improvement projects have been underway for decades, and will continue, to service cities’ growing populations, says Asche.

New populations in New Zealand

One third of New Zealand’s population lives in the Auckland region on New Zealand’s North Island, with immigration helping to grow the population there by 11% to almost 1.6million. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that the country’s two major tunnelling projects, the City Rail Link metro and the Central Interceptor Project, for wastewater, are both to be found there.

“Both are significant in terms of scale for New Zealand, although EPB technology has been around for a few years. The caverns for City Rail Link in Auckland’s weak rock are significant in terms of scale and the amount of disruption associated with the cut-and-cover tunnels in the central business district will probably drive more fully underground solutions in the future." says Bill Newns, President of the New Zealand Tunnelling Society and Director of NovoConsult.

Homegrown skills

Labourers’ pay is already healthy in Australia, thanks to the impact of mining and the support of unions. Any clusters of major infrastructure projects happening at the same time in the same region mean that construction workers and professionals at all levels are in short supply. “Firms are poaching from each other, offering higher salaries,” says Bowery.

The industry has been working hard to counter this threat, building the skills and competencies needed for its pipeline of tunnelling projects. Training programs and facilities have been linked to specific projects, explains Asche, such as Sydney Metro Northwest, and WestConnex. In New Zealand, the industry uses a training facility set up by Watercare in Auckland.

Now, Australia’s first permanent tunnel training facility is under construction in Victoria at higher education institute Holmesglen. The Aus$16m (€9.5m) Victorian Tunnelling Training Centre will include full-size replicas of a traditionally mined tunnel and the inside of a TBM, alongside simulators and virtual reality applications. In designing the centre, Holmesglen has taken inspiration from the UK’s Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy (TUCA), set up by the Crossrail project, and Kuala Lumpur’s Tunnel Training Academy.

New Zealand has the added challenge of competition from its bigger, busier neighbour. “Traditionally there has been a brain drain to Australia, as the wages are better, but the scale and the continuity of works here has begun to counter that,” explains Newns. 

“We need to get the next major underground project on the starting blocks to ensure that the skills remain here and that we all benefit from the recent investments in skills and knowledge.”

says Bill Newns, President of the New Zealand Tunnelling Society and Director of NovoConsult.

The New Zealand Infrastructure Commission Infracom, industry organisations and projects have come together to create a framework for upskilling the country’s existing workers, transferring skills from the building sector into the tunnelling one. “We’re developing a program, and then we will work to gain funding for it and roll it out,” says Newns.

The view ahead

One of the barriers to building up a competent workforce for tunnels and the wider civil infrastructure sector has been the short political cycle: three years in both Australia and New Zealand. With Governments changing frequently, there was no long-term plan to give companies the confidence to invest and develop their skill base.

“We are always pushing, as an industry, to get consistent policy,” says Bowery. “We have had the same government for a while, which is very pro infrastructure investment. But if there’s a change in government, there could be a change in priorities.”

This situation has improved, however, with the introduction of independent bodies – such as Infrastructure Australia and Infrastructure New South Wales - whose purpose is to scrutinise infrastructure investment proposals and prioritise them in line with the nation, or the state’s needs.

“The influence of these bodies has been increasing over the last five years,” says Bowery. “It takes the politics out of the prioritisation process and ensures that projects deliver good social value.”

Though some argue that the necessary environmental and funding hurdles are delaying and inflating major projects, Australia is actually faster off the blocks when compared to other countries, partly due to an environmental approval process which runs in parallel to its planning process.

“We carried out a study into international road infrastructure development and, generally, what we found was that in Australia we are quicker to market and quicker to start on site but there is less design carved out upfront and less de-risking of projects, so they go slower on site,” says Bowery. “In the end, they come out at the same duration as projects in the UK.”

Environmental and social governance can only become more important, with funders and politicians keen to learn which approaches deliver the most value all round. Australia and New Zealand's multinational band of tunnellers bring a diversity of approaches, culturally and technically, which could combine to create the best of all worlds.

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Jack Brockway President and CEO Herrenknecht Tunnelling Systems USA Inc.
Gerhard Goisser COO Herrenknecht Tunnelling Systems USA, Inc.