Beyond Boring: A Journalist’s Fascination with Tunnelling

About the Guest Author: Roland Herr has a background in civil engineering and is an international freelancing journalist. He has over 20 years of experience on engineering and construction projects all over the world, and is especially interested in tunneling.

Those working in tunnelling understand that this is an industry more fascinating than any other. What is it about tunnelling that makes it so exciting to those in the field?

Curious to know more, I discussed this question with some very experienced European tunnelling specialists: Frode Nilsen (Norway), Managing Director of LNS, and Dr.-techn. Klaus Rieker (Germany), Managing Director Tunnelling Division of Wayss & Freytag Ingenieurbau AG. Both conversations took place at different places and times, but with strikingly similar results.

Dr.-techn. Klaus Rieker and Frode Nilsen took time to share their experiences in the tunnelling industry.

Dr.-techn. Klaus Rieker and Frode Nilsen took time to share their experiences in the tunnelling industry.

Frode and Klaus both have extensive backgrounds in the underground industry. Frode has been working with tunnels since he left university, the Norwegian Institute of Technology, in 1988, and Klaus has been building tunnels for 25 years. Comparatively, I am a “youngster” with 14 years of experience with tunnels and the tunnelling industry, but no less enthusiastic.

Read on for the results of my Q&A sessions with Frode and Klaus:

One characteristic shared by most tunnellers is that they work internationally, on many different projects with varying levels of responsibility. Tell me about your international experience.

Klaus: [At Wayss & Freytag] I was assigned to different projects in Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan. As a young engineer working in Asia, it was very hard to gain acceptance, particularly because in the Asian culture, older people are typically responsible for project management. It was difficult to convince the contractor that I could handle it, but step-by-step I proved myself with my performance and knowledge. I remember with pleasure my time on a metro project in Singapore; altogether we had about 30 nations involved on the project. It was really amazing!

Frode: Our most impressive project [at LNS] was SILA for the Iron Ore company LKAB. We blasted 12 silos out of the rock and built a 600 m long unloading hall and a 2.8 km tunnel for iron transport from the silos to the harbour. Our most famous project was the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Spitsbergen for the UN, where we built tunnels and 3 rock caverns in the permafrost with an even temperature of -18° Celsius to store samples of the world’s seeds.

For Frode, the timeline and longevity of underground projects is also an amazing feat worthy of note—tunnels can be built in difficult ground conditions over a period of years, but the hard work pays off in that many tunnels have a design life of 100 years or more.

Working in tunnelling also provides a unique perspective on emerging markets. Which countries or markets are currently experiencing rapid development when it comes to tunnel construction?

Frode: In Europe, Norway is one of the most interesting nations, especially for drill & blast, with hard competition and low prices. In Asia, China is on top, and South America is also growing, in particular with the mining industry in Chile. Much of the future of tunnelling lies in mining: studies show that in 2034 around 60% of mining will be done in underground mines. That means tunnels for access, ore haulage, and more.

Klaus: Germany is now no longer really a market for tunnelling, and in Central Europe tunnel construction is declining. Meanwhile, Asia is the growing market. In Singapore for example, 10 to 20 machines are running annually for the metro system extension. China and India are also huge markets right now. I find North America to also be an interesting market with many current and upcoming projects.

Every industry has its own set of challenges. What do you find most challenging about working in the tunnelling industry specifically?

Klaus: A defining characteristic of tunnellers is that we love a challenge. We thrive on new, very difficult situations that demand utilization of all our knowledge and problem-solving skills, in order to find the best technical solution.

Frode: Client demands can be challenging, and are often accompanied by environmental and technical limitations as well as financial constraints.I am happiest when projects are profitable and everybody involved is satisfied.

Frode and Klaus’ comments on their experiences led me to one overarching conclusion: engineers working in tunnelling are some of the world’s brightest and most experienced, with shared passions for overcoming difficult situations and ever-expanding their world views. For adaptable and driven engineers, the tunnelling industry offers a challenging yet rewarding career with job security, as projects and new markets continue to emerge globally.

Roland Herr