‘The tunnel is holding us back like a wall’

July 15, 2019
‘The tunnel is holding us back like a wall’

The Chairman of the Board of VostokCoal, Alexander Isaev, gave an interview to Kommersant newspaper concerning the reasons for building Severomuysky Tunnel-2 and progress on the project to date

In the past year, Dmitry Bosov 's Sibanthracite unexpectedly announced that the company was ready to solve the problem of unplugging one of the most difficult bottlenecks on the BAM – the Severomuysky Tunnel.

Sibanthracites’s evaluation of the cost and timeframe for the project is half of Russian Railways’ previous estimate. Alexander Isaev, the head of the project’s construction management company, VostokCoal, told Kommersant how the project is structured. 

— Why is Sibanthracite interested in Severomuysky Tunnel-2

— We’ve created a large coal company. Eighty percent of our coal is metallurgical, which can survive any crisis. We have big plans for growth. We took up the project to ensure transport of coal by rail, as there is an acute shortage of freight capacity on Russian Railways (RZD). 

— How realistic is it to build this tunnel in five years? Earlier, Russian Railways talked about ten years, at a cost of more than 100 billion rubles.

— Of course, the project has many opponents – mainly companies that have been working in the market for a long time, which don’t like our activities – but we will definitely build a tunnel and build it in five years.We’ve received approval from the President of Russia, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has charged Deputy Prime Minister Maxim Akimov with working out any issues with the relevant ministries and agencies. As a result, a joint working group has been formed with RZD, the Sibanthracite Group has founded a project company named ‘Severomuysky Tunnel-2’, and we’ve begun to work. Experts have been to the site to examine the approaches to the tunnel and decide where to place settlements for rotational workers and the factory that will produce the lining.

With today’s technology, you can build quickly. We’ve ordered two boring machines from The Robbins Company, which will work from both ends of the tunnel. Each of them can go 300 meters per month. Multiply 600 meters by 24 months and that’s already 14.4 kilometers. So, it works out to two years, three years max, and another year for delivering equipment, laying rails, installing ventilation, electricity, etc.

— You said earlier you could build the tunnel for 60 billion rubles. Will that work? How much are you investing in 2019?

— In 2019, we’re investing 11 billion rubles. We have four scenarios, costing between 45 and 51 billion rubles depending on the technological solution chosen. If construction took 10 years, the cost would be higher. 

— The target of 100 million tonnes… Is that the capacity of the new tunnel, taking into account the existing one?

— Yes. Right now, oncoming trains must take turns passing through, but with two tunnels, they can just fly in from both ends. 

— How badly is this bottleneck holding you back?

— It’s like a wall. The European market has, in fact, died, and everything’s shifted to the East, but Russian Railways’ freight capacity is inadequate. As it is, we can’t transport more than 15-20 million tonnes per year to the East, but our production capacity will grow to 50 million tonnes.That’s too big a difference for us to just sit on our heels and do nothing. Russian Railways is trying very hard. There’s large-scale development work underway on the BAM and the Transsib, they’re improving the lines from Kuzbass. But, objectively, we can see that this isn’t enough, so, we’re ready to build the Severomuysky Tunnel-2.

— Where do the tracks from your coal deposits link with the BAM? 

— From Novosibirsk and Kemerovo, we use the BAM and the Transsib.

— But there are still a lot of other bottlenecks along the way, for example the spurs from the Kuzbass... 

— Yes, there are a lot of them, but those are easier to fix than the tunnel. And then you’ll run into the tunnel in the end anyway. The existing tunnel is increasingly in need of maintenance. After the second tunnel opens, Russian Railways plans to close the first for repairs for some time.

— On what basis will you collaborate with Russian Railways?

— Russian Railways is considering several options, and we expect a decision in about two weeks. There could be a concession arrangement, an EPC-contract, a rental-purchase agreement, or an asset transfer. Whichever option they choose, we’ll agree to. In any case, we’re building the tunnel for Russian Railways, so they’ll operate it afterwards.

— Are discussions on priority access to the tunnel moving forward?

— It all depends on Russian Railways. They’re considering options. The new tunnel should provide transportation for us and other users as well. Of course, we want guaranteed freight traffic for the work that we do, so it doesn’t turn out that we’ve spent all this money and still can’t get through.  

— But, there’s no legal framework for that now.

— It needs to be prepared. This is not a quick process.

— And you’re ready to begin building beforehand?

— Yes.

— Aren’t you afraid that the terms could change along the way?

— No, we’re not afraid, and we’ll take that risk. For us, the new tunnel is a guarantee that we can work effectively in the future. 

— Is there anything else preventing you from beginning construction?

— No.

— So, you can build and negotiate at the same time?

— We’ve done everything necessary: ordered the equipment, selected a designer and general contractor. We’re negotiating in parallel.

— If worst comes to worst and you can’t reach an agreement with Russian Railways, is there a ‘Plan B’?

— No, we hope to reach an agreement.

— Could you keep possession of the tunnel and own it like an access route?

— (Laughs) Of course, we’d be delighted if Russian Railways allowed us to keep it, as it would be an excellent business venture. But that would be strange because it would be completely unprofitable for Russian Railways. Our offer is beneficial for RZD and the whole country.

— Have any other coal production companies offered to join the project?

— No.

— Who is your design contractor?

— Minskmetroproekt. We held a tender and many of our design companies, including BAMtonnelproekt, took part, but taking into consideration price/quality, we chose the guys from Minsk. We’ve also hired people with extensive experience in tunnel construction in Moscow, Sochi, and BAM to create a general construction contractor headed by Igor Aleksandrovich Usoltsev, the General Director of ENGEOCOM.

— Why did you decide to build a tunnel instead of a bridge to bypass the existing tunnel?

— A bridge couldn’t handle the necessary volume, as there are steep grades there. It might increase volume, for example, by 20%. Today, 16 million tons is transported there, the bridge could add, say, 5 million tons, but we want 100 million tonnes to pass through.

What’s the problem with the tunnel? There’s very complex geology there, first of all where there was an accident, and also in the so-called ‘fourth zone’, where there’s a deep fault and the rock is fragmented into parts. There is a large column of water in this place that creates high pressure in the area. The fourth zone is very difficult to cut through manually, but Robbins’ boring machines can go through any rock formation.

— How do these machines work? After boring the tunnel, will the walls be cemented up?

— On difficult sections, a special drilling rig is used that bores through the rock and then immediately cements up the walls of the tunnel.

— So, the tunnel can be bored and lined at the same time?

— Yes, the machine drills and immediately cements and, afterwards, the places where there was water or bad soil are already like rock. By the way, in 1977, Robbins’ equipment was used to dig the service shaft, and it still works properly, though it’s quite large, more than five meters in diameter, like the Moscow metro.

— Why did you buy the boring machines rather than lease them. 

— You can’t lease them. Each is specially manufactured for a specific project.

— How will the old and new tunnels align? Will you dig a separate service shaft?

—  No. The distance between the service shaft and the existing tunnel ranges from 20 to 50 meters depending on the area. The distance will be approximately the same between the service shaft and the new tunnel. We plan to use the existing service shaft as an evacuation tunnel and make cross passages every 300 meters down the new tunnel. As the new tunnel will have a diameter of 10.3 meters, the drainage system can be installed directly inside, so the load on the service shaft won’t be increased.

— Do you have permission from RZD to work in its restricted areas?

— Yes, there’s an oral agreement. The legal documents are being prepared. The tunnel boring machines will arrive in ten months, so there’s time to formalize everything.

— What infrastructure will have to be created to start construction? And how much will it cost?

— To reduce costs and speed up construction, we will build a tubing plant right next to the tunnel. The equipment has already been ordered. The tubing will be manufactured and installed right behind the boring machine.

— How will raw materials be delivered to the plant, given the heavy load on infrastructure?

— Crushed stone and sand will be extracted from two nearby sites. So, the tubing plant will be effective: only cement and steel reinforcement will need to be shipped in, but not in large quantities. 

— When will you start building the tubing plant, and how much will it cost?

— So far, we can only build temporary structures, such as housing for rotational workers, and so on. The design for it should be ready in November, and then we can begin building it. The investment will be about 1 billion rubles.

— And you’ll also be developing your own port infrastructure for export on the other side of the tunnel?

— We are building ports in the Far East – Port Vera, as well as others. Their capacity will exceed 50 million tonnes. There are also other ports ready to handle our coal. But the problem is the same – how to get it there. Therefore, we set a goal for ourselves: in 2024, on the 50th anniversary of BAM, to open a tunnel that will ensure the transportation of our 50 million tonnes of coal.

Interviewed by Natalia Skorlygina

11, Minskaya str.,
Moscow, 121108

Tel./fax: +7 (495) 956-35-33