It’s the biggest project in the UK water sector right now – and 2016 has seen the Thames Tideway Tunnel hit some significant milestones.
After years of exhaustive planning and preparation, the biggest construction project in the UK water sector is now building up a head of steam on site.
“We think we’re making great progress, but that’s really backed up by the fact we’re now on site at our three main drive sites, and we’ve done that three to five months earlier than our original plan,” says Tideway chief operating officer Mark Sneesby.
February 2015 saw the main contracts for the Thames Tideway Tunnel handed to three JVs: BMB JV (Bam Nuttall/Morgan Sindall/Balfour Beatty) won the western contract, worth £300m-£500m; FLO JV (Ferrovial Agroman UK/Laing O’Rourke Construction) secured the £600m-£950m central contract; and CVB JV (Costain/Vinci Grand Projets/Bachy Soletanche) scooped the eastern contract, valued at £500m-£800m.
This year, all three began work on sites from which the main tunnel drives will be launched.
In the west, BMB began work at Carnwath Road Riverside, Hammersmith and Fulham, in March. This site will be used to drive the main tunnel to Acton Storm Tanks and receive the main tunnel from Kirtling Street, to the east. “We’ve cleared the site and started piling for the river wall, because we need to strengthen that ahead of building the shaft,” Mr Sneesby says.
Thames Tideway Tunnel Inside TBM at Beckton
Buildings on the Carnwath Road Industrial Estate have already been demolished ahead of the river wall being strengthened. This will allow a marine jetty to be built and an acoustic shed erected, before work to sink the shaft begins.
The FLO JV also began on site 16 March in the central section at Kirtling Street in Nine Elms, a site that is made up of four areas of land, as well as a section extending into the Thames. This site will be used to drive the main tunnel to Carnwath Road Riverside in the west, and to Chambers Wharf in the east.
“We think we’re making great progress, but that’s really backed up by the fact the we’re now on site at our three main drive sites, and we’ve done that three to five months earlier than our original plan”
Mark Sneesby, Tideway
“We started building the diaphragm walling here last week, so we’re building permanent works,” Mr Sneesby says. Excavation for the main shaft started this week – the first of the shafts to begin construction – and will be ongoing into the middle of next year.
The third drive site is located at Chambers Wharf in Bermondsey, and is being overseen by the CVB JV.
The site here will be used to drive the main tunnel to Abbey Mills Pumping Station at Stratford, while receiving the tunnel from Kirtling Street. It will also receive a connection tunnel driven from Greenwich Pumping Station in the east.
“We’re well advanced here with building the temporary cofferdam we need to give us some more construction space, and we’re making good progress,” Mr Sneesby says.
In addition to these ongoing works, Tideway has also handed over its first piece of permanent works – the moving of the Millennium Pier at Blackfriars. The new pier was commissioned at the end of October, and is now in operation and being used by the Thames Clipper ferries.
The team has managed to get on site early thanks to securing consent faster than expected.
“We set ourselves the challenge of [getting on site early] – but the key was getting all of the consent we needed to do that, which was not an insignificant challenge by any stretch of the imagination,” Mr Sneesby says.
“We’ve had fantastic co-operation from all of the boroughs and local councils, from the strategic authorities like the Port of London Authority and the Environment Agency, and to be fair, the local residents as well. Keeping them happy is very important so we’ve done a lot of work with them.”
“There’s nothing like having a TBM coming to focus people on getting the site ready”
Mark Sneesby, Tideway
The main proposition to these stakeholders was that the sooner the team began on site, the sooner it could finish. “From the likes of the Environment Agency, if we finish the project earlier, we get the benefits of cleaning up the Thames earlier.
“And from a taxpayer point of view, the sooner we can make our programme, we’ll undoubtedly save money, which will mean reduced customer bills,” Mr Sneesby adds.
Work on the three main drive sites, as well as other preparatory works across Tideway’s sites, will continue throughout 2017, with the start of tunnelling expected “a year to two years” from now.
“We’ve now ordered three of our six tunnel boring machines (TBM), which is good, and they’re in design and manufacture, coming from France and Germany – there’s nothing like having a TBM coming to focus people on getting the site ready,” Mr Sneesby says.
A number of challenges are still to come, though, not least capacity constraints that may begin to bite once other major infrastructure projects in the South-east come online, such as Heathrow’s third runway, High Speed 2, and even Hinkley Point C.
Mr Sneesby says he hasn’t seen an impact from this yet, but he is alive to the potential risk.
“It’s probably a couple of years away, which is why getting going is advantageous to us,” he says.
Likewise, Brexit hasn’t had an effect yet: “It’s all to come in the future. If anyone can tell me what Brexit will mean in the next two years, they’re a better man than me. We’re still on a watching brief to see what it means, but there’s certainly been no impact to date.”
Thames Tideway Tunnel TBM up close
The big challenge will be continuing to work with local authorities and other stakeholders to ensure contractors have all the consent they need to keep to programme.
“With all projects like this, they’re big engineering challenges, but they’re not anything that people haven’t done before. We’ve got really good contractors who are capable of doing this sort of work,” he says.
“The key for us is to make sure they can get all the consent they need to get on with the job, so we’ll continue with that stakeholder engagement.”
Tideway made a conscious decision to employ its contractors on design-and-build contracts, rather than client design as Crossrail had. It also asked contractors to secure the consent, rather than keeping responsibility for that in-house.
“That single accountability has been really beneficial in focusing everyone’s minds,” Mr Sneesby says. “We’ve supported the contractors wherever we can, obviously, as we’ve been here a lot longer and know about the consents, but ultimately it’s their responsibility to get them.
“There have also been lessons learned across the programme – certain contractors have had more success with consents and have been able to share that with the others.”
So Tideway continues to move downstream – but with most of the projects biggest milestones still to come, it’s going to be at the very centre of the water sector for many years.
Just a few weeks into his new role, Tideway chief executive Andy Mitchell famously announced that he wanted to achieve gender parity at the client by the time construction finishes in 2023.
At the moment, still seven years out from that point, the Tideway team is “35 or 36 per cent” female.
“We haven’t finished recruiting the team yet, so we’re still pushing that forward,” Mr Sneesby says.
The client has launched a number of initiatives to try to drive gender parity, including its Returner Programme that has seen some success already. Here, applicants get a full-time paid 12-week internship – and the programme is open to anyone who has been voluntarily out of the workforce for two years or more.
“We’ve two rounds of the Returner Programme so far. We took two lots of seven women in two streams, and all of them are still with us. It’s a win-win – they get back into work and we get some really good people,” he says.