Bridges, tunnels and canals

Australia’s spending on infrastructure over the years has pale into insignificance against some of the major projects being undertaken around the world.

The Australian Government’s most recent program of expenditure allocated $A 75 billion in infrastructure funding and financing from 2017-18 to 2026-27, mostly to kick-start major projects.

These include two “big-ticket” projects: $5.3 billion to get started on a new airport at Badgerys Creek,Western Sydney, and $10 billion on a national rail program.

Projects underway in 2018 included: $3.6 billion for the joint Australian Government and NSW Western Sydney infrastructure plan; $1.6 billion for the North-South corridor in South Australia; $1.5 billion and $2 billion concessional loan for WestConnex in Sydney; $5090,000 towards $1 Billion Monash freeway upgrade in Melbourne; $500 million for M80 ring road in Melbourne; $412 million for NorthConnex in Sydney; $914 million for Gateway Upgrade in Queensland; and $833 million for NorthLink in Western Australia.

There has of course been talk of linking Victoria and Tasmania by tunnel or series of island-hopping bridges. But the likelihood of that happening remains remote. Plans for duplication of the Sydney Harbour tunnel are on the drawing board.

Elsewhere in the world, major bridge and tunnel projects have been tackled successfully, even at great cost.

The world’s longest undersea tunnel to date (under the Tsugaru Strait in Japan) is 54 km (33 mi) long. A tunnel under the Bass Strait, directly from Victoria to Tasmania, would be at least 200 km (124 mi) long; if it went via King Island (to the north-west of Tasmania), it could be done as two tunnels, each one just under 100 km (62 mi) long. Both the length and the depth of such a tunnel make it beyond the limits of contemporary engineering.

The twin tunnel under Sydney Harbour – a major project in its day – is 2.8 km (1.7 mi) long and opened in 1992 at a cost of $A 554.25 million. The cost of putting in a duplicate tunnel today has been put at $A 7.2 billion.

The rest of the world is tackling projects that really defy description of their enormity.

  1. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, which will link three major Chinese cities. Cost: $US 59 billion.
  2. In Norway, the plan is to build the world’s first fully-submerged floating tunnel to cut travel times between fjords in half. Cost: $US 25 billion.
  3. The Gotthard Base Tunnel opened in Switzerland on June 1, 2016. At 56 km (35 mi) long, it’s both the longest and deepest train tunnel in the world, offering unprecedented efficiency when traveling through the Alps. Cost: $US 12 billion.
  4. The newly expanded Panama Canal has tripled the capacity of the vital waterway. Cost: $US 5.4 billion.
  5. China’s Jiaozhou Bay Bridge is the world’s longest cross-sea bridge, stretching nearly 42 km (26 mi). It cut travel time in half for people going between east China and the island of Huangdao. Cost: $US 8.8 billion according to some estimates although state media has quoted $US 2.8 billion.
  6. London’s Crossrail project — a massive upgrade to the existing Underground system — is the largest construction project ever undertaken in Europe. It involves 10 new train lines and connects 30 existing stations via brand-new tunnels. Cost: $US 23 bullion.
  7. China’s South–North Water Transfer Project is an ongoing effort to move nearly 45 billion cubic feet of water from the Yangtze River to the country’s less fertile northern regions. Cost: More than $US 79 billion so far.

Costs are estimates and may vary.

Project details

1. Spanning 55 km (34 mi), the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge completed in 2018 is the longest sea-crossing ever built.


 Bridge, tunnel entrance and route,

The Y-shaped span linking three cities incorporates the latest engineering technology and design, enabling the structures to withstand a magnitude 8 earthquake, a super typhoon or a strike by a cargo vessel weighing 300,000 tons.

Officially called a bridge, the link actually comprises a series of bridges and tunnels crossing the Pearl River estuary including 7 km (4.3 mi) of underwater tunnels and a number of artificial islands.

From an artificial island near Hong Kong International Airport, the structure runs west to another artificial island off the eastern shore of Macao, a distance 20 times the length of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The crossing also connects a town being built on reclaimed land in Macao. It took more than a decade to build. The link then runs to Zhuhai on the Chinese mainland.

The design had to take account of many factors, including a height restriction on a bridge in the vicinity of Hong Kong airport. At the same time, the busy shipping lane – 4000 ships a day making their way to and from Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou with 6 million tons of cargo – had to remain clear.

The answer was a submerged tunnel. But how do you connect a bridge to a tunnel in the middle of the Pearl River Delta? You build an artificial island where the bridge from Lantau Island can connect with a tunnel that has been lowered into the sea, piece by piece. Shipping lanes must remain open and there must be no risk to air traffic.

The tunnel was constructed from 31 pre-fabricated segments 180 m (190 yards) long and lowered 40 m (42 yards) below sea level.

A trip the long way round (by land) can take up to four hours, but will be shortened to around 30 minutes on the new route.

The major bridge section provides a dual three-lane expressway to handle traffic up to speeds of 100 km/h (62 mph). The artificial islands constructed at the ends of the sea tunnel are reinforced by 120 giant steel cylinders, each equivalent to the height of an 18-storey building

A total of 400,000 tons of steel was used in the project, equivalent to 60 times the steel used to build the Eiffel Tower. The bridge is designed for a 120-year lifespan.

The project is more than just a highway link – its economic benefit in linking the three Chinese cities is yet to be seen but it will be significant. The Pearl Delta region already contributes a tenth of China’s Gross Domestic Product.

Bridge building as become a specialty of Chinese engineers – first the US and Europe set the pace, then Japan. Now Chinese engineers have emerged as the ones to tackle seemingly impossible projects.

2. In 2016 Norway announced an ambitious plans o install the world’s first floating underwater tunnels to help travellers cross the nation’s many fjords by road, instead of using a series of ferries.


The plan is for large tubes suspended below 30 m (100 ft) of water, each one wide enough for two lanes of traffic.

The submerged tunnels (or bridges) would be held up by pontoons along the surface, connected with trusses to keep the tubes stable. The structure could also be bolted to the bedrock below to provide added stability. Each bridge system would consist of two tunnels, side-by-side: one for traffic in each direction.

Norway already has 1,150 traffic tunnels (35 of which are underwater).

The government initially committed $US 25 billion to the project, which is expected to be completed by 2035

3. The Gotthard base tunnel that opened in 2016 is the world’s longest and deepest traffic tunnel.


Passenger trains will speed through its 57-km (35-mi)- route up to 250 km/h (155 mph), 2.3 km (1.4 mi) under the Swiss Alps.The tunnel – actually separate twin tunnels going north and south – was started in 1999 after a referendum in which 64 % of the population voted in favour of the project that was to be Switzerland’s largest ever construction project. The tunnel links Erstfeld in the north with Bodio in the south and cuts passenger train times from Zurich to southern Ticino Canton to about 90 minutes.

During the 17-year construction, 28 million tonnes of rock were excavated, four million cubic metres of concrete were poured in, nine of the 1800-strong workforce died in accidents.

4. The Panama Canal Expansion was the largest infrastructure project since the Canal’s opening in 1914 when the distance travelled to get from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean was cut by around 8,000 nautical miles.

The US government built the original 80 km (50 mi) Panama Canal after a failed effort by the French in the late 19th century.

The American Society of Civil Engineers named it one of the seven wonders of the modern world in 1994. But the ships that travel the world’s oceans outgrew the canal and movements were restricted to those that would fit the original design.

The upgrade was built alongside the old locks. Modern transports, called neo-Panamax ships, can be more than 45 m (150 ft) wide, extend three football fields long and have a draft of 15 m (50 ft).

The new locks are 3.3 times larger by volume and accommodate ships 2.6 times bigger than previously.

5.  Jiaozhou Bay Bridge at 42.5 km (26.4 mi) long, it is 8 km (5 mi) further than the distance between Dover and Calais across the English Channel.

The bridge links China’s eastern port city of Qingdao to the offshore island Huangdao and is the longest bridge of its kind.

The bridge opened in 2011. It is supported by more than 5,000 pillars across the bay and is almost 5 km (3 mi) longer than the previous record-holder, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisiana.

The three-way Qingdao Haiwan suspension bridge took four years to build.

6. The London Crossrail project is one of the biggest engineering projects ever undertaken in England.

With a budget of $US 23 billion (14.8 billion pounds), it was also Europe’s largest infrastructure construction project when work started.The project has involved building a new line running from Reading and Heathrow in the west, through 42km (26 mi) of new tunnels under London.

The 118 km (73 mi) line cuts through London, linking it to Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Essex.

7. China’s South–North Water Transfer Project will divert 44.8 billion cubic meters of water per year from the Yangtze River in southern China to the Yellow River Basin in arid northern China through a system of three canals.

One of the routes will feature a tunnel 70 m (230 ft) under the Yellow River through two 9.3 m (30 ft) diameter horizontal tunnels.This is equivalent to nearly half the amount of water consumed in California annually. It will also displace hundreds of thousands of people.

FOOTNOTE: Not all of these projects have gone or are going smoothly. There have been problems but the people behind them determined early that large amounts of money were necessary to get the benefits sought.

SOURCES: Various media and industry reports that have been made public.


It’s the gas, gas, gas

There’s a really big floating thing sitting off the coast of Western Australia.

It’s a floating liquefied natural gas (FLNG) platform called the Prelude and it’s the largest floating offshore facility (vessel) ever built.

It could well be called a ship, but it has no means of propulsion. Prelude is much more than that anyway, able to perform operations as never before seen.

The Prelude was built by the Technip / Samsung Consortium (TSC) in South Korea for a joint venture operated by Royal Dutch Shell with KOGAS, OPIC and Japanese firm Inpex.

It is 488 m (1,601 ft) long, 74 m (243 ft) wide, and made with more than 260,000 tonnes of steel.  At full load, it will displace more than 600,000 tonnes, more than five times the displacement of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.

An industry writer observed: “Four football pitches placed end-to-end would not quite match this vessel’s length – and if you could lay the 301 m of the Eiffel Tower alongside it, or the 44 3m of the Empire State Building, they wouldn’t do so either.”

The Prelude is anchored in 250 m of water and has been designed to withstand severe weather, including up to a 10,000-year storm. It will remain onsite during all conditions. Seven production wells will feed gas and condensate from the reservoirs via four flexible risers into the facility. All subsea connections join the facility via the turret. The turret’s swivel design enables the facility to pivot according to wind and sea conditions while it remains fixed to the sea floor. The Prelude has thrusters to ensure it remains steady during production and offloading.

Prelude’s products will be loaded directly on to transport ships.

Shell notes: “FLNG removes the need for pipelines to shore, dredging and onshore works and therefore significantly limits the disturbance to the surrounding environment and in the right conditions, reduces development costs. It is also a competitive solution for fields like Prelude, that are very remote and hard to access.”

The Prelude was launched on 30 November 2013 and from 25 July 2017 has been in the Prelude field, 475 km north-north East of Broome, a 2.5-hour helicopter flight from the Broome base for Shell’s crews. It is moored by its turret to 16 seabed driven steel piles, each 65 m long and 5.5 m in diameter. Production was scheduled to begin in mid-to-late 2018.

Shell says the Prelude FLNG facility will produce 3.6 million tonnes of LNG, 1.3m tonnes of condensate and 0.4 million tonnes of LPG a year.

Industry estimates put the cost of the vessel between $US 10.8 and $US 12.6 billion.

The Prelude system has been designed not only to collect gas from sub-sea well heads, but also liquefy it on board at temperatures of -162C.

Floating LNG consolidates the traditional offshore to onshore LNG infrastructure into a single facility that is based over the fields.

As a liquid, the gas takes up significantly less space, making it easier to transport on ships. This liquefaction would usually be done after piping the gas onshore, but Prelude can do the job herself – something never achieved on such a scale before.

The BBC reported on 8 May 2018: “Some serious technology is involved in making this happen.

“Prelude has high-capacity pumps that can draw 50 million litres of water from the sea every hour to help cool down the natural gas. Once liquefied, it is then stored in massive storage tanks with a volume equivalent to 175 Olympic swimming pools.

“And this all has to keep going even through the worst imaginable weather. Prelude‘s hefty mooring chains are designed to survive Category 5 cyclones”.

There’s competition in the gas field, expected to “fire up” in mid-2018.

The gas fields off the WA coast will see the world’s biggest semi-submersible platform, the longest sub-sea pipeline in the southern hemisphere, and Prelude all competing for the resource that’s become even more valuable with the shift away from coal as an energy source.

Inpex, as well as being part of the joint venture has its own interest and will compete with Shell for gas supplies.

While Inpex will send its gas onshore for liquefaction, it also has a massive offshore semi-submersible platform to extract water and impurities from the gas first. And nearby, there is a floating storage and off-loading facility called Venturer.

Collectively, Inpex has dubbed these bits of mega-infrastructure Ichthys – ancient Greek for fish.

The BBC noted that Australia could overtake Qatar to become the world’s top exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) once Ichthys and Prelude reach full production.

Super-duper dumper

Finding a word that adequately describes the biggest dump truck in the world isn’t easy. Massive will have to do.

As far as land-based wheel transport goes, not much out-muscles the Belaz 75710, unveiled by its makers in Belarus in late 2013 and arriving at work for the first time in a Siberian open-pit coal mine in 2015. The price tag is around $US 6 million.

The aggregate wake of the truck is 810 tonnes, with 500 tonnes or ore/dirt the capacity of its flat bed.

Previously, the largest haul trucks were Bucyrus MT6300AC, Liebherr T 282B and Caterpillar 797F ultra-class trucks, with load capacities of 400 short tons

The Belaz truck is built with a conventional two-axle setup but has doubled wheels, four to an axle. It has 4-wheel drive and 4-wheel hydraulic steering. If you want to turn it around, its turning radius is about 20 metres so give it plenty of space.

Nothing else with two axles matches these figures:

  • Can carry 450 metric tons of rubble (close to 500 short tons) the first single dump truck able to do so and for comparison purposes (that’s about the equivalent of “seven fuelled and loaded Airbus A320-200 planes,” according to engineering company Siemens);
  • Is 65 ft (19.8 m) long and 26 ft (7.9 m) high;
  • Weighs the same as 37 double-decker buses;
  • Instead of a single engine, the Siemens MMT 500 electric drive system is powered by two MTU 65-litre 16-cylinder four stroke diesel engines, each with 2,300 horsepower. These are coupled to two AC alternators and four AC traction motors (two in each axle). Fuel consumption (according to company data) is 198 g/kWh per engine, with option to run on only one if carrying less than capacity loads.
  • Even fully laden, it can still climb a 10 per cent gradient at 40 km/h. It can travel on the flat at around 64 km/h;
  • Designed to work in temperatures from -50 to 50C and in altitudes up to 16,000 ft (4,877 m).

    Belaz has been building dump trucks since 1961 and supplies around a third of the massive units used in the mining industry around the world. The 75710 represents a significant leap forward in its inventory with a capacity of 90 tonnes more than the next biggest.The company tested the monster at the Bachatsky open coal mine in Siberia, said to have some of the harshest mining conditions in the world.The Caterpillar 797 series of off-highway trucks was developed and manufactured in the US for high-production mining and heavy construction applications in a world-wide market. They went into production in 1998 and the recent 797F model boasts a payload up to 363 tonnes hauled by almost 4,000 hp (2,942 kW) generated by a 20-cylinder engine. The Liebherr T282C features and electric AC drive system from either a 20-cylinder or 18-cylinder engine.Terex also developed a 400-tonne capacity dump truck – the MT6300 with AC electric drive powered by a 3,750 hp (2,758 kW) MTU/Detroit engine. Terex was taken over by Bucyrus which then became part of the Caterpillar group.
  • Information from company material.