Tunnels usually provide confined spaces in which to work so social distancing is hard to maintain underground. Work on many tunnels came to a halt upon lockdown. Nevertheless, some tunnelling projects are of high importance and cannot easily be postponed until after the pandemic has receded, if indeed that should ever happen. In many, even most, cases work has re-started, with precautions and adjustments in place.

But underground adjustments are not the only changes that are needed. Tunnelling requires equipment manufacturers, supply chains, project management and administration, all working in concert; and all have had to adjust to new normals.

China crisis?

China was hit early. CREG, the China Railway Engineering Equipment Group Co, is a worldwide supplier of TBMs and other equipment. As early as 22 January, CREG established a covid-19 action team to devise policies, and study and deploy epidemic prevention and control measures. (The UK government did not hold a COBRA meeting to discuss preparations and response to the virus until 2 March; UK lockdown did not begin until the third week of March.) Many of the procedures that CREG brought into its factories and plant are now standard worldwide, but it is worth remembering that China had to pioneer them.

The company introduced daily general health checks for all employees. Wearing of face masks was made compulsory, both indoors and out; social distancing was brought in at 2m separation, and breaks (breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea) were staggered. Canteen seating was also staggered: no-one sits facing one another. And precautions continue: canteens are disinfected immediately after use and employees bring in their own food and drink. Everyone entering or leaving a building is scanned on a QR code that records movements in and out; they disinfect their hands, have their temperatures measured and recorded, and maintain a tracking list of people with whom they have been in contact. In the workshop, only the same groups of people work together in bubbles.

So much for above-ground changes. “On tunnelling projects themselves, in the early stages of the outbreak there were stoppages and delays in domestic projects,” says Jiki Wang of China-based CREG’s International division. “Similarly, when Covid-19 broke out worldwide, some projects overseas were shut down or postponed. But currently, all projects for which CREG provides products have been gradually brought back to normal.

They have continued, but at a somewhat slower speed. For those projects, CREG coactively communicates with clients and customers to form an approved project resumption plan.”

CREG has come up with a ‘Safety and Jobsite Management Plan’ for employees assigned to such projects.

It includes minimising project staff to the extent that is possible; wearing PPE and using intercoms and the like for communication; in vehicles, it means trying to keep to only one passenger, who sits in the back seat and is not behind the driver. Small hand-held tools are sanitised on a daily basis.

“We have seen no drop in demand” says Wang. “Upon the outbreak of covid-19, many suppliers in China were shut down, which had a negative effect on the purchase of raw materials.

However, procurement was able to be carried out normally very quickly, as soon as the epidemic had been well controlled in the whole country.” Visitors to the factory must self-isolate in hotels before entry; CREG has set up a counselling group to ensure the physical and mental health of employees. Customers, adds Wang, have been understanding of the problems that covid is presenting to tunnelling construction. “And CREG has been working on the resumption of work and TBM delivery as scheduled.”

Nordic Action

Scandinavia has big tunnelling projects. As is well known, Sweden has adopted its own approach to the coronavirus, essentially resisting lockdown or even social distancing rules, while Norway and Finland have taken a more orthodox path.

In Finland, Skanska has been working on tunnels on the new Highway 12 Southern Ring Road. In Norway, Project D12 Bybanen Fløen –Kronstad is a road project near Bergen which includes construction of a 1,200m mountain tunnel. Here, the start of the shutdown in March brought problems.

“In the first weeks we had several issues around international and local travel restrictions and quarantine regulations” says Jacob Birkeland, head of media relations for Skanska. “We also saw an increase in short-term sick leave and employees with children having to stay at home due to the closure of schools and kindergardens.” This resulted in a six-day shut-down of tunnelling activities. “Production rates the following week were reduced as well until we could establish a new team. Luckily Skanska, as a major tunnelling contractor, was able to find good replacements for the personnel that for health, childcare or quarantine reasons could not come to work.

“In earthworks and concrete works we saw a small dip in production in the first two to three weeks. This however, involved somewhat less critical skill sets and personnel were fairly easy to replace with people from other regions, projects or companies.”

As elsewhere, Skanska immediately introduced restrictions in the use of break rooms. “Staff staying in overnight barracks were moved to hotel accommodation where space restrictions were easier to comply with. Home working for white collar staff was made mandatory, except for staff critical to production. Other precautions such as a much stricter “stay at home when ill” policy, cleaning machines between shifts, increased cleaning of public rooms etc. were also implemented. We got daily updates from Skanska HQ on what was going on and what new measures were recommended or demanded either from the authorities or from the company.

“The project coped well and we were able to maintain most production throughout March and April. From May through to the summer production rates got back to normal. The workforce was a bit worried in the beginning, but soon became accustomed to the new set of working and adjusted to the ‘new normal’ in a good way.”

A major issue in the first two months, says Birkeland, was how to handle the flow of information into the project from home offices and with restricted numbers in meetings, both internally and with the client. “Another difficulty was with leaders being present and visible on site to ensure safe work operations. The different production teams however were experienced and we had no incidents that could be related to the lack of information or absence of production leaders.

“Furloughs and redundancies were debated but since we were able to keep up a fairly good production rate this did not become an issue. Nor have we so far experienced any shortage of incoming materials. Together with our suppliers we identified some critical materials delivered from foreign suppliers that could have a supply chain issue going forward. In those cases, together with the client, we quickly placed orders for the most critical parts. We have however not seen the full effects of this situation yet and we are expecting some supply chain issues around natural stone to be delivered from China, India and Portugal in the coming year.”

In the US, pandemic measures have been varied and controversial and may become an election issue. There, Skanska is the lead partner on two infrastructure projects in Los Angeles: the Regional Connector Transit Project (in JV with Traylor Bros) and the Purple Line Extension (with Traylor Bros and JF Shea Co). Both projects early in the pandemic were deemed ‘essential’ by the State of California. “We took steps to provide a safe environment for all our stakeholders’ workers” says Birkeland. “On both projects we set aside 10-15 minutes each morning to administer a daily pre-check with workers and discuss the work plan for the day that implements social distancing.

“We have been enforcing a zero-tolerance for Working Sick Policy and installed additional wash and sanitisation stations throughout the projects. Support staff work remotely where possible. We carry out sanitisation of high traffic areas or heavy use equipment during and between shifts or use; and we have mandated additional PPE, to include at a minimum face coverings. While not mandatory, face shields are also provided and encouraged to be used onsite.”

Here also the supply chain is being affected. “We are starting to see an impact on the supply chain due to covid-19, specifically around manufacture and supply of special track work” he says. “Conduit materials are being delayed in fabrication. Our teams are working around those delays and so the impact has been minor. Neither project has been impacted by shutdowns or temporary closures, and we remain positive and confident in the steps taken and progress we have made. Everyone from the trades, craft, project staff and the client has adjusted and supported one another through this pandemic, which has allowed us to continue safe operations.”

Reinforcing Operations

The supply chain, then, is all-important. What of those who are in the supply chain, making and forwarding the materials, spare parts and components that are needed? It is a two-way path: the supplier affects the project; the project affects the supplier. Brussels-based Bekaert supplies, among other things, steel fibre reinforcement for tunnel linings.

“When projects stopped, we stopped supplying them. It is as simple as that.” So says UK-based sales manager John Greenhalgh. “Our production is affected by our customers: if they stop, we stop. “So demand is down, and production is down. We lost easily half our production volume.

“It is a global effect of course. We have suffered in most of Europe and parts of Asia. But Australia and North America appear relatively unaffected as governments there declared underground construction, including the mining sector, as being strategically of national importance, and these major projects have kept working either at 100% or at least with partial capacity.

“Some sites did close down but most, if not all, have reopened – certainly in the UK and I believe in mainland Europe as well, and all with covid measures in place: masks, temperature checks, self-declarations of non-contact and no symptoms.

“Of course everyone is trying to regain the lost time. I doubt if all of them will make that target this year. Certainly not by Christmas; perhaps by Easter next year; I am guessing.

“For our part the company has introduced those same full covid regulations, basically following the government’s advice in the country where we produce our products. Of course, all this has cost money that wasn’t budgeted for by anyone; but it has to be done. For ourselves it is on the global scale in every factory, and we have many.

“And of course I cannot visit anyone: risk assessments currently say no visitors. That, too, is global. It will be the new normal until people feel comfortable visiting offices and allowing visitors to offices. Which means that discussing needs has to be done remotely.”

Drill Discipline

In the US, Barbco is part of the national supply chain, making directional drills, augers, cutting heads and more. James Barbera is its founder. “We have installed multiple procedures to deal with the pandemic” he says. “We got started in the first half of March. Ohio’s governor came out with the things he wanted us to do.

“So we were taking the temperature of all employees as they come in to work; that is ongoing and happens in the parking lot. We changed our work start and end times. It used to be 7.00am to 3.30pm; now it is staggered, with four different start times, and lunch and coffee breaks at staggered times also. It has worked out really well.

“Our shop floor is spacious, so there is big distance between guys. Of course, we do sanitising and cleaning; we have a good fluid for that which we mix ourselves. And we have water on hand to drink always; that is especially important if you are wearing a face covering.”

For Barbera too, cash flow took a hit, but a temporary one: “In the first quarter some jobs got postponed. From March or April they were pushed back to June or July. Those have now taken place. In addition, jobs for our rental division that were postponed have also happened in the end.

“Some jobs are seen as necessary. In Pennsylvania we are in the middle of a pipe job; the state governor allowed it to continue. It involves horizontal drilling, which uses expensive pipe that you cannot re-use, so you cannot stop [the operation] half-way.

“The digital technology wasn’t always conducive. Our receptionist said “There is no way I can possibly process an order from my house.” So we put shields up in front of her desk to protect her. We have a few of those now. I think our final productivity is as good as it was before the pandemic.

“There has been lots of cooperation from everyone in the company. Our customers are the same, but are working again. We may keep these changes for years. It doesn’t seem a hardship.”

UK Projects

Currently, the UK has two major rail tunnelling projects, HS2 and Crossrail – the latter, for Transport for London (TfL), is Europe’s biggest railway infrastructure project. TfL has other major projects, including the capacity upgrade to Bank underground station. Here, as on other TfL sites, construction was brought to a stop in late March. It restarted on 9 June, with staggered shifts and physical changes to the worksite to allow social distancing. TfL even investigated the hiring of river boats to bring staff to worksites so they could avoid crowded public transport.

Crossrail was lucky. Actual tunnelling work was all but finished when covid struck. Fitting-out and signalling however was in progress. Work was paused on 24 March and did not restart until 15 June.

Constraints on how many people could work on site reduced numbers by half to about 2,000 workers.

Not long into the crisis, Crossrail began monitoring the liquidity of its supply chain partners. “Critical suppliers were identified prior to lockdown, and ‘bench agreements’ were put in place with nine suppliers” said a spokesman.

This meant that Crossrail took on the risk of supply-chain employees not being fully productive.” The payback for Crossrail was the confidence that those employees would be available, rather than the supplier carrying the risk and having to furlough key staff at crucial moments. Nevertheless, Crossrail will not open as planned in summer 2021. Only part of the delay, they say, is because of covid, though that has exacerbated schedule pressures. The mid-section is now hoped will start running sometime in early 2022.

HS2 was also lucky, but for the opposite reason: tunnelling has yet to start. “HS2 has not yet started tunnelling” said a spokesman. “When tunnelling operations do begin, our contractors will operate within Public Health England and construction industry guidelines and best practice. We will continue to monitor all our contractors to ensure they keep within the guidelines in force at the time.”

Even so, adjustments have been made. A common theme has been problems in the supply chain. It has been an issue for some time, whereby Tier 2 and Tier 3 suppliers are squeezed when payments are slow to reach them due to late payments made to Tier 1 contractors. Such concerns have been exacerbated by covid. HS2 announced in May that it is accelerating payments to all companies directly in its supply chain; it is processing approved payments immediately funds are available, rather than on the contracted payment terms.

HS2 has written to all its direct suppliers requiring them to mirror this and to ensure the approach is followed through all tiers of the supply chain. As a consequence, Tier 2 and Tier 3 contractors will not have to wait for payments to be processed by the main contractor. An estimated 400,000 supply chain contracts will be created during Phase One of HS2, many of them with small- to medium-sized businesses. At a time of economic concern from the Covid-19 pandemic, this should give those contractors some reassurance.

That, presumably, is a change that sub-contractors would like to become permanent. How many of the changes will indeed remain indefinitely and become part of the new normal no-one yet knows; but tunnelling, it would seem, is responding to the pandemic and has not been brought to a total halt.