Choices for the long run

27 November 2023

On the surface, what happens below may seem much of a muchness. Underground works – mining, tunnelling, all pretty much the same kind of thing? No.

In broad and relative terms, mining creates more temporary tunnels compared to very long duration underground structures for civil engineering tunnels – which are to be safely open to the public, in service for decades.

Mining is triggered by market and economic demands - when those heat up, the sector draws in investments looking for speedy returns, and projects begin or are revitalised; but when markets and economies cool, so does activity

Civil engineering tunnels are different, have different beginnings, brought by public need and – eventually – political agreement. Such infrastructure can be (rarely) wholly privately funded, (sometimes) completely publicly funded, or, increasing, have some kind of inbetween mix of financing.

Therefore, the risk profiles of both underground sectors differ, both in technical aspects and their strategic timeframes. In the UK, of late, a surprise came into the risk profile of civils infrastructure – one absent for decades, and instead usually a bogeyman for banks and lenders looking at developing country projects: political risk. Will they interfere onerously?

In the case of the UK, it just happened: the nation’s latest recent government pulled the plug on the future leg of an in-development strategic transport infrastructure project – the northern extension of HS2 high-speed rail project. The UK is not alone in looking at spending on infrastructure projects and other needs in the face of economic headwinds.

While those decisions get made, the underground industry can be assured of the achievements it makes technically, such as discussed in this issue, for EPB and slurry shield tunnelling. And, while we also spotlight BTSYM reaching out to potential future engineers, we are also pleased to reflect, in our interview with Bob Ibell, on the many major UK tunnel projects that have been successfully built.