Project Management Institute

Light shines at the end of the tunnel

How Europe went about restoring and upgrading one of its most important tunnel links after a disastrous accident in 1999

BY SARAH PARKES

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How Europe went about restoring and upgrading one of its most important tunnel links after a disastrous accident in 1999.

The accident, started by an onboard truck fire and fueled by raging convection currents as the flames took hold, totally vaporized the infrastructure within the aging 11.6-km passage between France and Italy, raising serious concerns about the future viability of one of the continent's most vital road links.

Now, three years later, the successful completion of a massive $300 million reconstruction project involving specialist teams from both countries has seen the newly reopened tunnel hailed as one of the most technically advanced stretches of road in the world.

If finding the right balance on the triangle of quality/time/cost keeps many project managers up at night, at Mont Blanc, quality and safety ruled supreme.

For Project Director Laurent Samama of Scetauroute, one of Europe's largest freeway construction firms, that's welcome praise after working against the clock for two grueling years to repair road paving; excavate a vast honeycomb of new passageways and muster areas; install new, high-power ventilation, fire retardant systems and radar; and retrofit the tunnel with state-of-the-art computer security and surveillance systems.

Coordination of the project was handled by Samama's own dedicated project management team, who in turn worked closely with project managers from each of the 12 specialist contractors, representatives from the two tunnel operating companies, and managers from two government committees, the Commission Intergourvernementale de Contrôle (CIG) and the Mont Blanc Security Committee.

If finding the right balance on the triangle of quality/time/cost keeps many project managers up at night, at Mont Blanc, quality and safety ruled supreme. That said, Samama's team was under intense pressure to complete the work fast, particularly from the Italians, for whom the tunnel represents the prime western European transit route for trade worth tens of billions of Euros each year.

The first order of the day was the preparation of a detailed project design covering all components, from tunnel decontamination and heavy engineering works to signaling, radar and ventilation systems, installation of utilities, in-tunnel radio and information technology (IT) networks, and exhaustive equipment testing. Constraints included the length and narrow dimensions of the tunnel, which was built back in the early 1960s when neither heavy tourist traffic nor heavy vehicles were much of an issue. Lack of modern safety provisions, such as a separate evacuation tunnel, necessitated the demolition of 5,100 cubic meters of existing concrete and the excavation of more than 110,000 tons of mountain rock to create a new, high-tech control room, 37 new security exits, and a host of emergency parking bays and evacuation shelters.

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Illuminated panels throughout the length of the Mont Blanc tunnel reinforce the strict new 50 km-per-hour limit and begin flashing automatically if any vehicle is detected speeding. State-of-the-art systems in the central control room constantly monitor conditions within the tunnel, automatically activating safety systems in the event of an incident.

PHOTOS BY ATMB, THE AUTOROUTES ET TUNNEL DU MONT BLANC

“From day one, scheduling was always the major issue,” says Samama. “Even as the project began, it became clear the sheer scale and difficulty of the civil engineering would slow things down. That meant we had to abandon the luxury of moving the project forward in logical completion phases, and opt for a more flexible approach.” Monthly top-level steering committee meetings reviewed the progress of each component and examined revised cost estimates and risk analyses.

With a testing phase lasting several months built into the project plan, the team decided to minimize delays by testing installations in 600- and 1,200-meter road “parcels,” so that even if installations weren't in place along the full length of the tunnel, correct functioning could be verified. “Since the same groups of systems were installed in each parcel, we were able to get an accurate picture of how the tunnel's high-tech equipment was operating,” says Samama. “It meant blowing out our costs, but we did achieve one of the world's fastest time frames for a tunnel project of this size.”

The 10-month equipment installation phase included a custom-built information IT control system from French firms Cegelec and Gemmo, which the companies say is the most advanced tunnel management system in the world.

Monthly top-level steering committee meetings reviewed the progress of each component and examined revised cost estimates and risk analyses.

“In addition to continually monitoring and optimizing conditions within the tunnel, the IT system provides immediate response in the event of an emergency, automatically controlling ventilation, fire retardant systems and alarms, and providing onsite controllers not just with an instant overview of what's going on, but with identification of the probable cause and a plan for the most effective course of action,” says Daniel Demode, a senior project manager with Cegelec. Design and fast-track installation of the IT component of the tunnel was undertaken strictly in accordance with ISO 9001 specifications and involved 85 specialists grouped into three project teams working in parallel and meeting on a daily basis to review progress.

Overall project tracking involved close coordination between Samama's own project managers and project management staff from each contractor. Monthly top-level steering committee meetings reviewed the progress of each component and examined revised cost estimates and risk analyses. “Having my own dedicated project management team provided a vital element of impartiality,” says Samama. “If there were problems or delays, I knew about them immediately, because no one had any interest in fudging the figures.”

Day-to-day headaches included linguistic and cultural issues between the French and Italian teams, who also found themselves under conflicting pressure from their national authorities. While the French were concerned to appease a vocal environmental lobby in the Chamonix valley, in Italy, farmers and manufacturers were desperate to re-establish their economic lifeline to the lucrative markets of France, Spain and northern Europe. “Competing priorities between the two sides was a major difficulty throughout the life of the project,” says Samama. “On just about every issue we found ourselves searching for a compromise.”

A fully bilingual working environment, requirements for exhaustive risk analyses and preparation of updated work programs on a daily basis also complicated life for the Scetauroute team. But with up to 700 staff working inside the tunnel in cramped, dark conditions two kilometers below the icy peak above, knowing where workers were at all times was vital to safety.

Quality control of the finished work involved a comprehensive four-phase plan of quality checks by each contractor, the Scetauroute team, an external expert, and, last, by the CIG, followed by real-life simulations and even a live-action emergency re-enactment.

If the decision to prioritize quality above all else predictably saw total project costs double and tunnel reopening delayed by several months for additional testing, for once no one was complaining. Thanks to a commitment to best-practice project management at all levels, the grande dame of Europe's tunnels is now also its most modern—and safest. PM

Sarah Parkes is a freelance journalist with more than 12 years experience in the telecom and IT sectors. Based in France, she is a regular contributor to a number of U.S. and European publications, including London's Financial Times.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

Send comments on this column to editorial@pmi.org.

PM NETWORK | OCTOBER 2002 | www.pmi.org

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