Mega infrastructure projects like flyovers, elevated roads, highways, metros, bridges, tunnels, expressways, etc, are redefining how we interact with our surroundings; in fact, Infrastructure is intrinsically linked to everyday life and is a defining feature of modern societies. Saeeduddin Faridi presents a select group of such projects that are creating intra- and intercity linkages across regions and driving socio-economic changes, while ensuring minimum disruption to the ecology.

Mega infrastructure projects

The world has consistently witnessed the construction of newer and better infra projects, and lately projects of unprecedented size and complexity. An illustrative example is the U.S. Interstate Highway system, which today stands at over 78,513 kms. It was first introduced by U.S. President Eisenhower in 1956. Sometimes referred to as the largest public works undertaking, the project has directly impacted American lives by providing efficient access to cities across the country. Besides its direct impact on the lives of commuters it has also reshaped the geography of the regions around it. By making distances shorter it has brought places closer and reorganised the geography of the region.

Countries across the world are deploying large-scale infrastructure projects that are projected to fundamentally alter how citizens and, largely, the public, interacts with the area around them. The principal driving idea behind building infrastructure and connectivity is economic prosperity achieved by more efficient linkages. Efficient linkages reduce logistics associated costs, allow access to new markets, and the process associated with construction results in the mobilisation of significant economic resources.

This article looks at a select group of such projects that are creating linkages and driving socio-economic changes. An important and a common feature that emerges in these projects is the increased level of consideration given to the environment and local ecology that are directly impacted by construction activity. With the growing threat of climate change and loss of biodiversity, the world has become cognisant of environmental issues. This is being reflected in many construction plans, albeit quite inadequately in some projects.

Fehmarnbelt Tunnel, Denmark and Germany
The Fehmarnbelt Tunnel is an ambitious project currently under construction between Denmark and Germany. The construction of the 18 km long tunnel underwater tunnel will become an integral link connecting Scandinavia to continental Europe through both the roadway and the railway when it opens in 2029. It is the largest infrastructure project in Denmark and among the largest in Europe, with the expected construction budget to exceed $7.1 billion.

The project will bring more efficiency and capacity in the rail and road networks connecting Scandinavia and Central Europe. Slower and longer freight trains on the current route reduce the capacity of passenger trains. The tunnel will reduce travel time between Copenhagen and Hamburg by 2 to 2:30 minutes and shorten the route by 160 km.

The Fehmarnbelt Tunnel is an ambitious project

The project will oversee the construction of five tunnel tubes, which will include two road and two rail tunnels, keeping the carriageways of either direction separate, and another emergency use tunnel tube will also be constructed. The railway carriageways will comprise of two electric tracks with passenger trains running at speeds up to 200 kmph.

The construction of the tunnel is taking the immersed tunnel approach - a Danish technique which was used to previously build the Oresund Tunnel. 89 precast concrete tunnel segments will be built and immersed into the trench on the seabed. This will ensure uninterrupted movement of maritime cargo and will also accommodate the railway network. This approach was necessitated by the challenging soil conditions.

An enormous factory at Rodbyhavn and a work harbour has been set up to construct each segment of the tunnel weighing 73,000 tons each. The factory is a major undertaking in itself. At one million square meters and with six production lines, it is one of the largest factories in Europe. The harbour will be used to transport elements of the tunnel to the construction site.

The Fehmarnbelt Tunnel is an ambitious project

The first phase of construction involved dredging 15 million cubic meters of sand and soil from the sea bed, a task undertaken by Dutch companies Boskalis and Van Oord. Femern A/S, a subsidiary of Sund & Balt Holding A/S, is responsible for designing and planning the tunnel and proposed building a fabrication yard with six production halls to cast the 217-meter-long, 73,000-tonne concrete elements. Each element contains two motorway tubes, two electrified rail tracks, and a service passage.

The supporting infrastructure for the construction of the tunnel includes fresh water and sewage pipes. Power cables and substations were built to provide the construction site with electricity. Furthermore, construction roads were also built for logistic supply. The construction of the ferry port east of the Puttgarden began in October 2021, followed by the outer retaining dam as part of the tunnel portal. Temporary ports are being constructed on both sides to tow down the materials and tunnel elements from the fabrication site to the belt.

The Fehmarnbelt Tunnel is an ambitious project

The reduced distances and duration of travel will also reduce emissions and help in creating a greener transport network. The fully electrified railway network on the tunnel will also create a green transport corridor. While construction companies claim that the tunnel is being built sustainably and ‘alongside nature’, environmentalists have raised questions regarding the impact of construction on the biodiversity in the Fehmarn Belt - a protected area.

This project has the significant potential to redefine the geography of Europe by linking Scandinavia and Continental Europe through its shortest and most ambitious route yet. In June 2020, dredging work had commenced around the work harbour using some of the world’s largest backhoe dredges. In August 2022, the contractor consortium concluded a full-scale trial casting of the segments being produced for the immersed tunnel. By 2029, the tunnel is expected to transform European travel; an important element of the Trans-European Transport Network will have materialised.

Regional Rapid Transport System, New Delhi
India’s National Capital Territory (NCT) is witnessing the construction of the mega Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS), which will revolutionise transport: The burgeoning population has created extreme pressure on infrastructure in the city due to increasing migration of people from neighbouring regions. This has further exacerbated existing problems such as air pollution. Furthermore, transport infrastructure in the city, despite being aided by the wide network of the Delhi Metro, remains inadequate. Hence, the need to develop infrastructure that is inclusive, sustainable, and allows Delhi more room to grow horizontally.

India’s National Capital Territory (NCT)

Delhi’s regional development plans have long called for improved connectivity with satellite cities. This is vital to reduce population pressure on Delhi and induce development and growth across settlements in the NCT. The Functional Plan 2032 proposed and detailed a multi-modal transport system for Delhi and its surrounding areas. This included the construction of eight rapid transit corridors, of which three are being developed on priority by the National Capital Regional Transport Corporation. Among these three, the Delhi-Meerut Regional Rapid Transit Corridor has seen significant development with the section likely to be functional by 2025.

The $3.8 billion project between Delhi and Meerut entails building the aboveground railway tracks on piers up to heights of 17m as well as the underground portion of the transit system within Delhi. This project will mobilise extensive construction equipment and other resources to build civil works, railway tracks, station buildings, multimodal hubs, maintenance depots, and traction and power supply, besides the tunnelling and overhead construction of tracks. There are eight tunnel boring machines working on the project for speedy completion. While the Interim Expert Consultant of Delhi-Meerut RRTS line is Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), the line will be operated and maintained by DB Engineering and Consulting GmbH through a Rs. 1493.08 crore contract awarded in May 2022.

NCRTC (National Capital Region Transport Corporation) has begun the process of laying tracks inside the tunnel constructed in Meerut as part of the Delhi-Ghaziabad-Meerut corridor. This step is being taken to accelerate the construction of the RRTS (Regional Rapid Transit System) corridor and ensure its smooth operation.

The first tunnel, stretching from Gandhi Bagh to Begumpul RRTS station in Meerut, was completed in October of last year. With the laying of tracks, the project is set to move ahead and meet its targeted deadlines.

The entire network of the three lines of the RRTS project will culminate at Sarai Kale Khan in Southeast Delhi, making it the biggest multi-modal transport network hub in the city, with connections to the Nizamuddin Railway Station, the Delhi Metro, the Interstate Bus Terminus, and now the RRTS.

India’s National Capital Territory (NCT)

The project is also focused on providing mobility and economic opportunity in an inclusive manner by making it accessible to the differently-abled and to women. This is important to visualise public spaces for otherwise marginalised identities.

A 17-km section of the Delhi-Meerut line from Sahibabad to Duhai is expected to be open for public use in the coming months, while the entire line will be operational by 2025. The seamless connectivity with high speed and frequent trains will transform Delhi’s interaction with satellite cities, allowing development and growth across a wider region.

The Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS) project is being jointly funded from multiple sources, including the Centre and state governments of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, as well as three external agencies - the Asian Development Bank (ADB), New Development Bank (NDB), and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Mumbai Coastal Road Project
Mumbai is among the most congested cities in the world: its road network has lagged, crippling connectivity within the city and with satellite towns. While Mumbai’s road network is about 2,000 kms, Delhi (a comparable city in terms of population), has a road network of close to 28,000 kms. Consequently, despite having a lower number of registered vehicles, the density of vehicles in Mumbai is much higher than Delhi, making the city infamous for its long commuting hours.

a comparable city in terms of population

To overcome this challenge, the government has implemented the Coastal Road project, which entails building a road network along the coast with wide roads, bridges, and tunnels. The project stretches over 29 kms from Marine Lines in the South to Kandivali towards the North, and aims to reduce travel time between South Mumbai and the Western suburbs from the current two hours to 40 minutes. The project’s first phase, starting at Nariman Point and linking to the Bandra Worli Sea Link, is likely to be completed by November, this year. Construction on the project started in 2018, and despite environmental concerns, has gone ahead without significant disruptions.

The Mumbai Coastal Road project Phase 1 is currently under construction between Marine Drive and Bandra Worli Sea-link by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC/MCGM). It spans a distance of 10.58 km and consists of an 8-lane road built on reclaimed land from the sea. It also includes a bridge on stilts, an elevated road, twin-tunnels under Malabar Hills, new green spaces, a sea wall/breakwater wall, and multiple interchanges for traffic dispersal.

a comparable city in terms of population

Phase 2 of the project, which is approximately 19 km in length, will connect Bandra with Kandivali. In January 2022, the APCO Infratech-Webuild JV was awarded a contract worth roughly Rs. 9,000 crore by the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) for the construction of the 9.6 km Versova-Bandra Sea Link (VBSL) project.

Phase 2 of the Mumbai Coastal Road project involves constructing a northern extension spanning 19.22 km between Bandra, Versova, and Kandivali. This will include a 9.6 km Bandra-Versova Sea Link with connectors to Bandra (1.17 km), Carter Road (1.80 km), and Juhu Koliwada (2.80 km). The Detailed Project Report for Phase 2 was prepared by Louis Berger.

The construction of this mega project involves use of novel methods and of large magnitude. BMC plans to reclaim a 111-hectare area in the Arabian Sea for the Coastal Road project. The challenging task of sourcing rocks and soil to reclaim land in the sea has been undertaken and most of the land reclamation work is already completed. Mumbai is not unfamiliar with land reclamation. In fact, since 1672, Mumbai’s topography has evolved with land reclamations to make the region suitable for agriculture and habitation.

a comparable city in terms of population

The project also involves the construction of interchanges at several points to connect different parts of the city. Most of these interchanges are built in the sea. One such interchange is being built using a monopile foundation system – a technique that has not been used in India before for bridge construction. The system is cost-effective and less disruptive for the seabed.

The project will also witness the construction of India’s first undersea tunnel. There will be twin tunnels, one for each carriageway, which will run for two kms before connecting to an overland road. The Mumbai Coastal Road project is utilizing the largest Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) currently available in the city, which measures 12.2 meters in width. This is a significant feat, as the project also marks India's first-ever underwater tunnel construction of its kind.

Initially, the plan was to dismantle the TBM after the first twin tunnel was completed and then reassemble it at the construction site near Priyadarshini Park. However, due to the complex logistical challenges involved, it was decided to rotate the TBM and commence digging for the second tunnel from the Girgaum Chowpatty side instead. This innovative approach has enabled the project to proceed more efficiently, reducing downtime and costs associated with dismantling and reassembling the TBM.

The use of innovative technology however does not mitigate the impact on the environment. Environmentalists have raised alarms over the impact the project will have on the coastal ecology. The reclamation of land disrupts marine life by destroying coral reefs and fish spawning ground. Furthermore, fishing communities are concerned that the project will largely limit their traditional source of income, which is fishing in shallow waters. Besides environmental criticism, residents and concerned citizens have also voiced concerns regarding the neglected public transport in the city as opposed to the estimated $1.7 billion project.

Nevertheless, construction of the project continues undeterred in Mumbai. It will transform the geography of the city with the new connectivity and the development of 70 hectares of green and open spaces along the reclaimed land. It will reduce distances and give more room for the densely populated city to breathe.

China Laos Railway
Laos, a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, is amongst the smallest economies in the region with limited avenues of economic growth, especially given the constraints regarding its linkages with global trading networks.

Construction of the Vientiane-Boten railway network has the potential to create a more dynamic and regionally integrated economy in the country. Vientiane is the capital and the largest city in Laos, set along the Mekong river, while Boten is a town close to the Chinese border.

Construction of the Vientiane-Boten railway network

The $5.9 billion project involves the construction of a 422-km electrified and high-speed railway network in Laos. This will cut travel time from the current 15 hours to 4 hours, and lead to a drop of 40 - 50 percent in the logistics cost. Within China, another 595-km railway link will connect the border area to Kunming, connecting Laos to the Chinese mainland and the country’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The terrain within which the project has been constructed is extremely challenging. Over 80 percent of the line is built in mountainous and plateau regions with complex geographical features such as steep terrains, broken rock formations, and turbulent rivers. Furthermore, the region is prone to earthquakes due to its proximity to fault lines. The China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group, responsible for the construction, has deployed new technologies, including seismic-resistance design of catenary and anti-lighting designs.

SANY equipment played a vital role in the China-Laos Railway project, comprising the largest proportion of the fleet and involved in all project tasks, from tunneling to bridging and construction of supporting facilities. One of the most challenging aspects of the project was the construction of the 1,652-meter-long Ban Na Han Mekong River Bridge, which featured the highest pier shafts and longest span. SANY's equipment was put to the test during the pile founding and concrete-pouring work required for the bridge, but proved capable and reliable thanks to the expertise of its operators.

Construction of the Vientiane-Boten railway network

Another significant project challenge was the Konglang Village Tunnel, which spanned 9,296 m and passed through four fault zones. The local geography posed a high risk of landslides during equipment operation, creating a dangerous environment for workers. However, SANY's excavators demonstrated impressive flexibility and efficiency, boring through hills with a zero-accident rate. Throughout the several-year-long construction period, SANY's cranes and "World Pump Kings" also performed exceptionally well and remained stable, thanks to the expertise of their operators.

The project has completed construction of 75 tunnels totalling 198 kms, several bridges, and a 9.59-km cross-border Friendship Tunnel. On the Chinese side in the Yunnan province, close to 80 percent of the project runs on bridges and tunnels. This includes the Yuanjiang Railway Bridge, with a record-breaking girder span of 249 meters and supported by piers up to heights of 154 meters.

Constructing the railway network in dense vegetation also exacerbated potential environmental issues. In order to minimise disruption to the local ecology, alternative routes were explored and techniques for revegetation were developed.

The challenging project has opened up more avenues for expansion with Thailand also expressing interest in a link to China through Laos, which will create a new megaproject for Southeast Asia.

Trans-Sumatra Toll Road, Indonesia
Indonesia is an archipelago of over 16,000 islands which explains its heavy reliance on transport networks to link the country. However, this sector has faced under-investment. Sumatra, Indonesia’s second largest Island, is rich in biodiversity and contributes close to a quarter of Indonesia’s GDP. Lack of proper connectivity within the island is an impediment to its economic potential. Roads are bumpy, the railway is not well integrated, and inter-city connections are lacking. To alleviate the connectivity issues, the Indonesian government is constructing the Trans-Sumatra Toll Road running from the Northern tip of the Island to the South and connecting cities on the East and West coasts.

Indonesia is an archipelago of over 16,000 islands

The project is a major undertaking financially and in terms of its construction. The road network extends over 3,000 kms and the estimated cost of the entire project is close to $34 billion. In 2015, HK Infrastructure acquired the Trans-Sumatra Toll Road project to develop 24 roads. Presently, several sections of the road are operational while others are under construction. The road project is expected to reduce logistics costs and cut travel time within the island, making its economy more competitive. Furthermore, the development of logistics hubs along the road network will further boost the country’s economy.

The construction of this significant project however is not without its complications, given the topography of the Island which is home to large mountains and dense forests. The area’s geography had to be intensively mapped given that it consists mainly of peat soil, clay soil, and soft soil. The construction company employed innovative technologies such as drone-mounted Lidar (UAV-Lidar) for mapping the corridor. This cost- and time-effective method mapped 2,200 kms of the corridor, giving detailed information on the topography, elevation, and other features. Furthermore, the ecology of the area also determined the construction plans; for instance, bridges were built in areas used by migrating elephants.

Apart from the above-ground conditions, the team had to deal with the challenges posed by the soft soil and clay that went as deep as 13 metres. To add stability to the construction, the team laid a geotextile fabric membrane beneath the six-metre embankment, preventing soil displacement.

Bentley Systems' software was instrumental in managing this complex project, as it could combine data from different sources to create a complete digital model of the project. Bentley LumenRT, for example, was used to visualise the road and identify problems. The visualisation helped the team quickly identify the need for higher bridge clearance when the planned route clashed with an existing road.

The expansive construction of the toll road across the island of Sumatra will integrate the transport system and strengthen connectivity. The resource rich region is likely to see improved economic dividends with reduced logistics cost and the plans of the government to use the infrastructure to create a centre for production and processing in Sumatra.

Delhi-Mumbai Expressway
The long-standing plan of connecting Delhi and Mumbai - two of India’s largest cities - is approaching realisation with the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway. The 1380-km long Expressway, being built at a cost of Rs. 98,000 crore, is expected to cut travel time between Delhi and Mumbai to 12 hours from the current 24 hours.

The construction of the expressway has been divided into four sections, with a total of 52 tenders or packages. Each package has a deadline of 24 months or two years to complete the work. The first section is DND-Faridabad-Ballabhgarh-Sohna, which consists of three packages and spans a distance of 59 kilometers. The second section is Sohna-Vadodara, which comprises 31 packages and covers a distance of 844 kilometers. The third section is Vadodara-Virar, which includes 13 packages and stretches over a distance of 354 kilometers. The fourth and final section is Virar-JNPT, which is made up of five packages and covers a distance of 92 kilometers.

The construction of the expressway

Connecting India’s two financial centres will have significant economic benefits. An improvement in logistics is likely with areas along the Expressway accessing markets across regions more efficiently, as well as improved access to global shipping lanes through the Jawaharlal Nehru Port.

Another positive impact of the project, besides the development of economic activity, is its environmental impact: the Expressway will save almost 320 million litres of fuel every year and cut emissions by 850 million kgs.

The Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) has been a longstanding project which the Government of India had implemented alongside the Government of Japan. The project envisioned development ‘on either side along the alignment of the 1483 km long Western Dedicated Rail Freight Corridor between Dadri (UP) and Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT), Navi Mumbai’. The enhanced connectivity is aimed at aiding the development of industrial capacity along the route.

The Corridor is also expected to provide a significant boost to local economies along the expressway. Additionally, the mega construction activity will require mobilisation of extensive resources. The project is expected to generate 50 lakh man days of employment, consume 12 lakh tons of steel, and use 80 lakh tons of cement (close to two percent of India’s annual cement production capacity).

In states along which the Expressway will pass, new and innovative architectural techniques are being deployed. For instance, in Haryana, where over 160 kms of the Expressway is being built, the Expressway will have one of the tallest highway corridors in India at 18m.

In Rajasthan, where 374 kms of the Expressway is being built, an important consideration has been the protection of local wildlife as the Expressway passes through ecologically sensitive areas like the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve and the Chambal Sanctuary. To offset some of the disruption, the project will include three animal overpasses and five overpasses across 7 kms. Also planned is the construction of one of the two 8-lane tunnels for the project; it will mitigate disruption to the Mukundra Sanctuary.

Madhya Pradesh will witness the construction of a bridge over the Chambal River. In Gujarat, where the Expressway runs the longest distance, the state now features the iconic 2-km long, 8-lane, extradosed cable span bridge over the Narmada River. Maharashtra will see another 171 kms of the Expressway extended up till the Jawaharlal Nehru Port, and the second 4-km tunnel at Matheran’s eco-sensitive zone.

The entire length of the Expressway is scheduled to open during this fiscal year. The Prime Minister of India has recently inaugurated the first phase of the Expressway connecting Delhi to Lalsot.

The construction of the expressway

Apart from the main expressway, there are plans to construct several spurs to enhance connectivity to various locations. Some of these spurs include a 67-kilometer, 4-lane Jaipur Spur starting from Bandikui (chainage 168.550). The land acquisition for this spur began in April 2021, and in March 2022, GR Infraprojects received the letter of acceptance (LOA) to build it.

Another planned spur is a 30-kilometer, 6-lane connectivity to Noida's Jewar International Airport from DND-Faridabad-Ballabhagh Bypass KMP Link Spur. The lowest bidder for this project is APCO Infratech, and the status of this project is ongoing.

There is also a 130-kilometer, 4-lane Ujjain Spur connecting Garoth-Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh. Three contracts for this project were awarded in February 2022 to GHV India (Package 1), Ravi Infrabuild Projects (Package 2), and MKC Infrastructures (Package 3).

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