The Shortest Link Between Two Points

All of the tunnels in Switzerland combined would result in a tunnel stretching from Zurich to Tehran. Swiss experts and companies are pioneers in tunnel construction, creating mammoth projects not only in Switzerland but also abroad.

Not as popular as chocolate, yet in demand all over the world: The expertise of specialists and companies in tunnel construction. In an interview with Dr. Ing. Markus Romani and lecturer Thomas Rohrer from the Berne University of Applied Sciences, we find out why Switzerland is a pioneer in tunnel construction and why the world will continue to count on Swiss know-how in the future.

Mr Rohrer, Switzerland is at the forefront of tunnel construction. How did this position come about?

Switzerland is a country of tunneling and underground structures. On the one hand because of its predominant alpine topography, on the other hand also due to our location in the center of Europe. Switzerland has been a transit country for intra-European passenger and freight traffic since ancient times and remains so today. This long history of successful tunnel projects, realized since the industrial revolution, has also strengthened the expertise found in many Swiss construction companies, which is then passed on to new generations at universities. Swiss experts and companies are therefore in high demand. In 2017, the Swiss Tunneling Society (STS) compiled a database of the various tunnel works in Switzerland, including galleries. All the work combined would result in a tunnel stretching from Zurich to Tehran, and Switzerland also leads the field in the ratio of tunnels to land surface.

Mr Rohrer, the last Swiss tunnel projects were extreme in size and cost. Will we continue to see such "mammoth projects" in the future, such as the fjord tunnel for cruise ships in Norway?

We must also keep in mind that many large structures were built in different eras, according to the development of Switzerland and its economy during that time. For example, the first large railroad tunnels through the alps, such as the Gotthard, Lötschberg or Simplon tunnels, were built between 1850 and 1920 as the Swiss railroad network expanded. Subsequently, many tunnels were built for the emerging hydroelectric and pumped-storage power plants. Road tunnels were added to the national road network in the 1960s. Today, due to the promotion of sustainable transport, more railway tunnels are being built again, such as the Gotthard base tunnel for example, a part of the New Railway Link through the Alps (NRLA) project. However, the large projects also bring greater challenges. For example, new questions arise about safety, the materials used or even the different rock formations in a 57-kilometre-long tube. You have to remember that due to the rock overburden, the rock in the Gotthard Base Tunnel can heat up to 50° Celsius. So the materials used, such as plastics, electrics, concrete, etc., must also first be developed and then tested for these new conditions. Or concerning the subject of safety: how do you quickly and safely evacuate a train in the middle of the tunnel filled with 1’000 passengers?

For this, correspondingly intense research and testing was carried out in advance - a strong innovation push has taken place. This expertise and practical experience is available in the companies and is in demand internationally. Back to the actual question: yes, we will continue to see and experience such major projects in the future.

Certainly, the two big railway projects in Austria and Italy, the Brenner Base Tunnel and the rail connection between Lyon and Turin, should also be exciting for Switzerland. Here, too, Swiss engineers and companies are involved. You must also see that with the vision of the North-South axis, railway tunnels and transit traffic through the Alps will become even more important. With the promotion of the new Chinese Silk Road, this demand for capacity through the Alps will increase even more.

Mr Rohrer, you have been involved in various major tunnel construction projects yourself. What are the biggest challenges in such projects?

Such large, but also smaller underground projects require a lot of time for preparation and for implementation. Many different experts are being involved and the logistical and planning challenge is enormous. If there are gaps somewhere, it can quickly become expensive and thus unnecessarily prolong a project too. The biggest challenges in tunneling are still dealing with the uncertainties arising from the geological forecast and the management of geological fault zones. From a human perspective, it is certainly also an exciting aspect that in large projects, during the execution phase, a temporary "community of destiny" is created on site. In the Gotthard Base Tunnel for example, there were so-called "construction workers' villages" in which the construction workers, civil and mechanical engineers, geologists, planners etc. lived together for long periods of time. In such artificial communities with a high degree of internationalization, it is important to maintain a good team spirit.

Mr Rohrer, you have already mentioned the different eras. Between 2010 and 2019, 26 road and rail tunnels were put into operation. This is around a third of those done in the decades before. Nevertheless, tunnels are gaining in popularity. More and more traffic is moving underground. How do you assess this trend?

That is correct. But the trend I mentioned is already a reality. Just recently, the Swiss Council of States gave the political go-ahead for the "Cargo Sous Terrain" project, thus setting an important course for this exciting project. Our mobility will become more sustainable, but also more digital and automated in the coming decades. Watch the developments around Elon Musk and his Hyperloop. Dismissed as a bold idea in 2012, a project in Switzerland, the aforementioned "Cargo Sous Terrain", is now entering the planning phase, and potent investors are supporting this project. It can already be observed today, especially in cities, that traffic is being moved underground to support quality of residential living. Not only railway lines and highways, but even highly frequented bicycle paths, such as those around the Zurich train station, are to be moved underground.

Mr Romani, the Berne University of Applied Sciences has positioned itself particularly in the field of tunnel construction. Civil engineering does not seem to be particularly popular at first glance but Switzerland is drilling and digging for projects all over the world. A future-proven industry for the coming years?

I think you can say that - in Switzerland as well as internationally. It must also be said that civil underground engineering is much more than just tunneling. Think of sewage systems, excavation support, foundations and natural hazards such as landslides. There will be plenty of such contracts in the coming decades and they will never be in short supply. An important reason why Swiss construction experts and companies are in particularly high demand is also the education system. The universities of applied sciences combine basic vocational training with tertiary education in a very practice-oriented way. Switzerland is envied internationally for this educational advantage. A few years ago, we had a delegation from Colombia visit us. Colombia's topography is comparable to Switzerland's, and there is a corresponding demand for tunnel construction. The group wanted to find out how we combine the dual education system with academic training and the professional world and contacted BFH.

In Switzerland, one can currently also speak of a shortage of skilled workers in civil engineering. We know of planning offices or construction companies that would like to expand or open additional locations but had to postpone such an expansion step due to a lack of personnel resources. Here, as a university of applied sciences, we also try to create connections through cooperation with companies. This gives our students the opportunity to build up their own network within the industry while they are still studying. Part-time study is very popular at our university, with many students combining their construction experience in a practice-oriented way with a job, e.g. at one of our cooperation partners.

Mr Romani, the BFH is also tasked with researching and following new trends. What changes in the project planning and execution of civil engineering projects do you realistically see, for example, the use of BIM (Building Information Modeling) or robots?

BIM is indeed a big topic and will be increasingly used in the coming years. The previously serial planning is digitally and temporally parallelized by BIM. The creation of a digital twin of the building enables the early detection of planning errors and the mapping of the entire service life. Maintenance costs, sustainability considerations and dismantling can also be simulated in advance. The introduction of BIM is also gaining momentum in civil engineering due to the generational change that is currently taking place. Younger engineers are advancing into the management departments of companies and are thus introducing digital thinking into planning and process design. The topic of sustainability can be observed both in construction itself and as a driver. More and more buildings are being built underground to improve the quality of life in cities. Mr Rohrer also mentioned the "Cargo Sous Terrain" project - an exciting project. And in general, attempts are being made during construction itself to design and build a structure as sustainably as possible through the use of new materials, technologies or new methods, and then also to keep it lean for later operation in terms of the CO2 balance.

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