THE FEHMARNBELT LINK: TUNNELLING THROUGH TO AN INTEGRATED EUROPE
In October 2012, the prequalification process on one of the world’s most ambitious logistic infrastructure projects was announced. When completed, the Fehmarnbelt, an 18-kilometre immersed road and rail tunnel linking Denmark and Germany some 40 meters underneath the water’s surface, will be the longest tunnel of this sort in the world.
Five times longer than the Øresund tunnel and three times longer than the current record-holder, the BART trans-bay tunnel linking San Francisco and Oakland, the tunnel fuses innovative technology with economic vision. It will provide a 160 kilometre short cut between Hamburg and Copenhagen, shaving 1-1.5 hour off the travel time of road and rail traffic between the two cities.
A subsidiary of Denmark’s state-owned Sund & Baelt Holding A/S which oversaw the construction of the Øresund and Great Belt fixed links, Femern A/S is responsible for designing and planning the Fehmarnbelt fixed link as well. The company is inviting top tier contractor consortia from around the world to submit prequalification requests for four contracts: dredging of the seabed and land reclamation; construction of the northern section of the tunnel; construction of the southern section of the tunnel; construction of portal structures, ramps and associated land facilities.
Strategic Straight Line
The creation of a fixed link between Scandinavia and the European continent over the Fehmarnbelt has been on the wish list for decades. While a fixed link over the Great Belt exists, it is not direct and adds 160 km from Hamburg to Copenhagen. The new project was made possible in 2008 when a treaty between Danish and German governments was signed. While the original plan called for a bridge, the preferred option is now an immersed tunnel. The Ramboll Group is the Danish partner in a joint venture selected by Femern to conduct most of the preliminary engineering and design studies, and in their opinion, a tunnel will be safer and more environmentally friendly than a bridge.
The tunnel will comprise four separate modules – two two-lane highways going in each direction and two rail tracks. Virtually weather proof, the tunnel will not subject motorists to potentially dangerous crosswinds. Each mode and direction of traffic will run in a separate tunnel tube so that motorists will not have to contend with oncoming traffic at any time. Emergency lanes will line the length of the tunnel and a computerised traffic control system and a 24/7 manned control centre will be incorporated in the design. Traffic information will be available on FM radio and signs and varied architectural lighting will be installed to help drivers stay alert.
The logistic advantages of the project are considerable. Ferry service across the belt currently takes 45 minutes, not including waiting time. A trip across the road/rail link will take cars 10 minutes at 110 km/h and trains 7 minutes. Proponents view the Fehmarnbelt link as a catalyst for European integration as it will bring people and businesses together on a regular basis faster and more frequently than before. The EU endorses the project as it addresses a current gap between Scandinavian and central European rail systems and creates a strong transport corridor between the Øresund region and Hamburg.
The project has its critics. Environmentalists worry that the infrastructure could potentially obstruct water exchange between the Baltic and North Seas. So far these concerns have not been borne out by experience gained in the Øresund and Great Belt projects. North Sea water, however, is crucial for marine ecosystems and the Fehmarn Strait is where most of this exchange occurs. The project could also be detrimental to marine mammals and bird migrations. Other critics take the project to task on geo/economic grounds, claiming that the land linkage between the Scandinavian Peninsula and mainland Europe should look eastward – to Berlin and Poland rather than to Hamburg. According to polls conducted periodically by Femern, proponents outweigh opponents on both sides of the strait and public support for the project is growing over time.
While immersed tunnel technology has been used for several decades, the project is not without its engineering challenges. A new concept enables the tunnel to be constructed Lego style by piecing together specially designed and manufactured components. 79 identical standard tube units – 217 metres long, 42 metres wide, 9 metres high and weighing 72,000 tons – will comprise the backbone of the tunnel. In addition, 10 monitoring/utility/emergency response stations will be placed one floor down along its length. Most of the tunnel components will be produced in a dedicated factory in a coastal facility with its own harbour outside of Rødbyhavn, Denmark. After manufacture, the units will be towed for placement in a pre-dredged tunnel, immersed one by one and locked into the adjoining unit in a process which creates an airtight seal between the units. Once in place, the units will be covered by rock and sand and after a few years of reasserting itself, the seabed will be completely restored.
Construction of the Fehmarnbelt is scheduled to begin in 2015, pending approval by both the Danish and German governments. Estimated construction costs come to €5.5 billion. The projected average annual cost of operating and maintaining the tunnel is €73.7 million, including capital re-investment. The project is assumed to have a life span of 100 years and it is estimated that it will return investment costs within 40 years. Should all go as planned, the missing link between Scandinavia and continental Europe will be open for business towards the end of 2021. By improving the transport corridor through northern Europe and enhancing routing options and efficiency, the fixed link will facilitate European trade greatly.