Fortune telling

13 October 2015

In the Tunnels and Tunnelling Offices we keep heavy, hardback copies of every issue going back to the first edition in 1969. And it's interesting to look back and see how the tunnelling industry, as well as the wider world, has changed through the decades. One Editor's Comment from the 1980s prophesises that manufacturing in the US is finished because of a strong dollar; another from the late 1990s asks how long the West can continue to financeAsia. And earlier than that there's a lot of ink spent in fearful speculation about the fate of the Channel Tunnel.

In front of me I have the Editor's Comment from 30 years ago (Tunnels and Tunnelling, September 1985, p.3). It's a great instance of how unpredictable the pipeline of work can be, and too the requirements of society.

It starts: "Tunnelling in Britain is finished. Finished in the sense that most of it is done. Our infrastructure is virtually complete. Apart from the Channel Tunnel, pretty well all our road and railway tunnels, including most of the tunnelling needed for the London Underground were completed by the turn of the century."

Looking back, this has clearly not been the case. Looking forwards, this is also unlikely to be the case. (Hopefully) upcoming projects such as Crossrail Two, High Speed Two, and the Stonehenge Tunnel among others would all suggest there is still a need for infrastructure expansion when it comes to moving people.

The comment continues: "This is also largely true for most of the urban water and sewerage systems in the country [...] but generally speaking, Britain's tunnelling infrastructure is 99 per cent completed."

London's Lee Tunnel, and the main Thames Tideway megaproject (as well as the Shieldhall Tunnel in Scotland) are examples of a pressing need to improve the sewerage works. Did it really once seem likely that the Victorian Era sewe network would be enough serve London forever?

Anyway, most of the current fears seem to be about ensuring a consistent pipeline of work to preserve skills, and the training of enough apprentices.

These are far happier problems than those predicted by Tunnels and Tunnelling in 1985: that firmsand engineers must desperately market their skills overseas to escape the impending dearth of work "otherwise only a bleak future awaits the rump of this once proud industry, and tunnelling in Britain would be finished in more senses than one."

With tunnelling now a preferred option for politicians, and very much in the public consciousness in the UK, we are seeing less usual projects such as the York Potash Mine's planned underground route to the nearest port. Overseas in Central Europe and in some cases South America, advances in technology have allowed the construction of longer and deeper tunnels than ever before. Base tunnels are the jewel of the industry, and in this issue of the magazine we have printed a section devoted to these projects