Underground construction: tunnels are being built, but there is no light at the end of the tunnel

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Underground construction: tunnels are being built, but there is no light at the end of the tunnel
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The markets for underground construction and additives and mixture production for tunnel construction are like passing ships. A specialist comments on the market’s conditions.

The head of the department for technical support and underground construction project supervision for “BASF Construction Systems Ltd.”, Dmitry LYKOV, answers questions from our magazine.


Mr. Lykov, what is the general situation in the sphere of underground construction? Has the number of objects gone down on account of the crisis?   

— Speaking of civil construction, of course the number of objects has decreased. The market directly depends on financing and urban policy conditions. The majority of orders in the sphere of underground construction are implemented in Moscow: Metro construction, underground parking, etc. The city is going deep into the ground – this is a tendency all over the world.

Because of the crisis and financial reduction, the pace of the Moscow Metro development has decreased a little, especially as regards additional types of construction, particularly water isolation works. If the Metro’s main lines are being financed, the situation is quite different in the segment of additional types of construction.

2014 was unsuccessful. In 2015 the situation leveled off, but it still did not achieve the level of 2013.

The condition of the mining industry may be described as steady.

Many producers of mineral resources (e.g. potash fertilizers) are financing the construction of new mines. A number of producers are investing in mining security enhancement, so there is stability in the sphere, but at the same time much depends on the world market prices for metals.

Compared with previous years, the prices for gold, copper and basic metals have decreased.  


— And how is civil underground construction in the regions? What is the condition of the underground in the megacities – Saint-Petersburg, Ekaterineburg, Novosibirsk, etc.?

— The underground is being extended there, but they are lagging behind the schedules as planned a couple of years ago. If earlier the projected terms for putting the objects into operation were 2015 – 2016, they are now 2017 – 2018.  


  • Do you recon on infrastructure objects: roads, tunnels, joints, etc.?
  • As far as road construction is concerned, we have plans to take part in large-scale tunnel projects, including the BAM structure. But even with these projects, financing depends on foreign policy.


— And when do you expect to see “the light at the end of the tunnel”?

— I am an optimist, and I assess the evaluations of Swiss banks and such highly respected analysts as Stin Jakobsen. He is also a great optimist and says that the situation with the vital index for Russia – low prices for oil – cannot last long, and at the end of 2016 everything will change for the best.  And I agree, and I hope that at the end of 2016 and in 2017, financing will turn.


— Let’s hope so. And now let’s talk about the main players on the underground construction market.  What helps them to keep the lights on? Informal networking? New technology? The volume and the amount of orders?  

— First and foremost, their history of staying on the market… The underground constructors look to well-known brands and they buy technologies which have proved themselves on the market. Of course, efficient networking with many leading companies dealing with underground construction, such as “Eurochem”, Nordgold, ALROSA, “Norilsk nickel” and others, is very important. And last but not least, the professional level of the market leaders’ personnel is very important.


— Which companies, besides BASF, are the main players on the underground construction market?

— Alongside our company there are four large, strong producers of construction chemicals for the underground construction industry. There are also many minor participants specializing in narrow segments of production, like water isolation. But middle-level players are virtually absent.  


— Many recent trends in BASF construction chemicals are localized in Russia. What about products for underground construction?  

— We are only partly localized. It means that we have to import some things from our European plants, but many in-demand products on the domestic market are produced in Russia. Among them are MasterRoc materials and products which allow for the continuous work of tunnel-boring machines.


— Where are your main plants for construction material production?

— They are in the Podolsk district, the Moscow region, and in Kazan. Of course, the company will increase its facilities in Russia and initiate the production of new materials on the market.  Therefore, this year a plant is planned for Saint Petersburg, where, alongside concrete additives production, underground construction and mining industry materials will be localized.


— What materials for underground construction do you place primary importance upon?

— The main thing here is complex decisions. A whole range of products should be provided for the working of mechanisms driving the tunnel, for creating isolation systems (to make the tunnel dry) and safety operations (fire protection systems, etc.). Only when all of these are provided will the tunnel will be put in operation.  


— What basic products are in in your product range?

— Coating waterproof membranes, materials to stop heavy water inflows, for water isolation systems, and for increasing the efficiency of tunnel-boring machines.


— Do you have any special requirements for underground construction materials? Do they differ from those in the common construction sphere?

— Basically, the requirements are fire protection, environmental friendliness and technological effectiveness. The simpler a product in application, the better the chance of success.  

Mining enterprises working with the system of backfilling mined-out spaces are in need of a product allowing them to produce mixes which would not be fluid but which could be transported long distances and which could evenly fill the mined-out spaces and acquire strength in a short period of time. When used in complex mixes, this helps to reduce the time before the beginning of the second cycle.  

These are special additives controlling rheological properties of stowage mixes. Stowage mixes are manufactured from mining production residuals: barren rock and slag, which are used at ore-processing plants. Everything available is used. Filling is the cheapest concrete which may be produced from local products with a minimum cost of 1 m3 (and here logistics are of great importance).

An additive should be magic – it should make a useful mix from poor components. Specialists from a company-producer choose the optimal additives from their kit and compose a recipe for the mix. A large number of experiments are held, including lab and field testing. Successful testing having been finished, a customer is offered a special type of additive and application technology. Speaking of fire protection, it is achieved with the development of special recipes, wherein many materials are fireproof and are self-extinguishing.


— Are you satisfied with Russian regulations concerning underground products?

— Yes. They come from Soviet times, and everything was very strict then. Besides this, we often have to develop our own standards, undergo expert examinations and tests, and to prove that our products correspond with norms and regulations.  

How is innovative activity developing in underground construction? What technologies are considered the most efficient? What are their advantages?

— We do our best to share our experience with our Russian partners. In particular, we suggest replacing the existing system of cast-iron tubing with the method of tunnel casing by plaster base spraying.  It is a kind of “sandwich” system, when shotcrete layers alternate with layers of sprayed water isolation membranes and are covered with concrete.

Such systems are widely used in Europe, the USA, Australia, and the SAR. In Russia the technology is being considered, and it is taking us a lot of time and effort to promote it.

This system significantly reduces expenditures and production time for cast-iron tubings, logistics, and assembly, and increases the efficiency of metro line construction. It is a very promising method, and we hope to finally convince Russian designers and metro constructors of the advantages of this method.  


Why are they reluctant? What is the reason?

— I suppose the reason is a distrust of anything new. The professional community always meets any innovation with distrust. It is quite normal. And it takes time to convince Russian specialists of the advantages of new technologies.


How should a tunnel-boring company choose the most efficient combinations and technologies? What would you advise?

— Of course, one should take into account everything new, the latest achievements in the sphere of underground construction, turn to the most advanced design and engineering contractors… The market leaders closely cooperate with design organizations. I think if construction companies study the latest achievements of the main market players, 50% of their success is guaranteed.  

Operational efficiency will follow naturally from the use of high quality materials used in long-term exploitation. It means that there won’t be any additional expenses for maintenance and regular service, as well as the elimination of unpleasant and unexpected water flows and other complications in the tunnels during the course of operations.

The higher the quality of the material, the more sustainable the structure and the more reliable and steady the operation process.


Photos provided by “BASF Construction Systems Ltd.”