Key lessons from the Brenner Base Tunnel implementation

In December 2016, specialists from “RB Rail AS” went on an exchange trip to the Austrian city of Innsbruck where they met with the team responsible for the implementation of the world’s longest underground railway line (Brenner Base Tunnel): Planning Department representatives, Walter Echbauer, Thomas Ganghofner and Romed Insam.

The Brenner Base two-way Tunnel, which goes through the Alps between Austria and Italy, is considered to be the world’s longest railway tunnel. Its length is 55 kilometres, its diameter is 8 metres and its value exceeds 8 billion euros. As is the case of the Rail Baltica project, this infrastructure project is also implemented with the significant support of European Union funds. The tunnel is administered by a joint venture between Italy and Switzerland and it has two operating companies in each of the respective countries.

During the meeting, both parties shared their experiences on different issues relating to project planning, design and implementation. Both projects have a lot in common, and for this reason we present the 3 key lessons that the “RB Rail AS” team took from the meeting and which were agreed to be highly significant in the planning of huge infrastructure projects by both parties.

Careful planning and a detailed timeline

For implementation of huge infrastructure projects one of the main cornerstones is detailed planning and the anticipation of the smallest details. This includes not only project costs, but also benefits, risks and planning of technical solutions by working out the detailed timeline of the project where every delay can have consequences for further project planning and implementation. Decision-making processes are often complicated and do not go as smoothly as planned. What is more, a project can be delayed by objective conditions and unforeseen technical challenges, which often means higher costs.

The implementation of the Brenner tunnel has been significantly delayed for more than 10 years and the current timeline states that the construction will be finished in 2026. The delay was mostly caused by unpredictable factors which were discovered during the implementation phase of the project. In the case of the construction of an underground mountain tunnel, it is not possible to know what will be discovered in the mountain massif. The unexpected situations forced the team to completely change the original technical solution – it was discovered that the planned technologies were not usable and that the technical project had to be changed.

Of course, no huge infrastructure project can be protected against such unexpected events. However, every subsequent project has the opportunity to take advantage of the best experience and practice from similar projects.

Currently there is no equivalent project to Rail Baltica, as never before have three countries participated in such a large infrastructure project. The Rail Baltica project will set a precedent for this level of cooperation and therefore everything is being done within the deadlines.

Balancing legislative bases

An important detail is the ability to balance different legal practices and legislative bases, which in several fields tend to vary between two or more countries. In order for the project to avoid stumbling on different legislative obstacles, it is important to develop a constructive solution for these situations which would alleviate such disparities. In the case of the Brenner Base Tunnel, the parties took the best practice from both countries – Austria and Italy. The ability to think in a visionary and long-term way, and not to lose focus on the project and think about common benefits, is fundamental in these cases.

Potential challenges for the Rail Baltica project lurk in the balancing of the legislative bases between the three countries, which not only requires the respect of the interests of individual countries and attention on the overall progress of the project, but also the burdens of the involved parties with the translation of significant amounts of documentation.

The latest technologies in planning and construction

Infrastructure projects, where a wide range of parties are involved in the planning and implementation processes and which are administered between two or more countries, generate enormous amounts of information which require immediate processing and systematization for their utilization in future phases of the project. According to the experience of the Brenner Base Tunnel administration team with Building Information Modelling (BIM), its introduction should start during the design phase. BIM is a process which includes the creation and management of a project’s physical and functional characteristic digital representations, where all information and project data are available electronically, not in printed format, in order to facilitate project administration and decision making. BIM provides opportunities to create precise digital representations of the project and high quality construction documents for the planning of construction works, forecasting project performance and cost calculation.

The administration team of the Brenner Base Tunnel began BIM in the middle of the project, and therefore strongly recommended that the Rail Baltica project start using it in the design phase in order to avoid problems related to the processing of enormous amount of data. BIM implementation is one of the priorities for “RB Rail AS”.