Digging deep for opportunity

18 April 2019

In this issue, two of our lead features look at the impact of infrastructure projects on demand for lifting equipment.

There are a wealth of projects around the world, that will require not just a dozen or so cranes for a single job site, but perhaps hundreds of machines, over the space of a decade.

A good example of this is the Thames Tideway project, which Julian Champkin writes about this month. This is a project that has been a long time coming. It's the continuation of the work done by Joseph Bazalgette, back in the Victorian era, to drain the waste from London that was spreading deadly diseases.

Back then, London would have been one of the world's biggest and richest cities, but many people were living in conditions of desperate poverty. And it was not just the poor that were affected: it's possible, although not entirely proven, that the stomach disease that killed Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, may have been typhoid, spread by dirty water. Certainly, other royals of the era died of diseases of this type.

Bazalgette—building on the pioneering epidemiological work of John Snow, who identified the dangers of contanimated water—solved these problems with the sewage system he built for London. Thanks to his foresight, building tunnels twice as big as he thought he might need, his system kept London healthy for more than a hundred years.

Today though, even Bazalgette's system is struggling. Thames Tideway aims to fix this, with one of world's widest diamerer tunnels running alongside the river, from one side of the city to the other.

When Bazalgette built his sewer, the techniques he used were comparable to those of surgeons of the same era: massively disruptive interventions that could only be justified by the extreme risks posed if left untreated. Today's Thames Tideway is more like modern keyhole surgery: the entire project will be built using just seven access shafts. Beyond some strenghening work on the Embankment alongisde the river, it is almost invisible to most Londoners. Throughout, lifting equipment—sheerlegs and gantries for unloading and delivering tunnel boring machines, compact telecrawlers working inside the tunnel, a fleet of barge-mounted cranes working on foundation work and prefab concrete section delivery—has been vital. Along with other major infrastructure projects like Crossrail, HS2, and Hinckley Point, it has given a real boost to demand.

Also in this issue, Shem Oirere takes a wide view of the market for lifting equipment in Africa. Here too, with the economy resurgent, governments are looking at their countries' infrastructure needs. Here too, power and water, transport and communications, are driving demand.

But, whether it is London or Lagos, these projects often run into trouble. Planned by politicans and funded, increasingly, by private finance, they often start late, finish even later, and invariably seem to cost more than anyone thought they would.

There's very little that the lifting (or broader civil engineering) sector can do about such issues. The skill for crane owners, it seems to me, is to track these projects closely, committing to orders only when they are convinced that the project will need extra machines. But I'd be fascinated to learn more about how you assess when is the right time to buy for projects of this scale.

Will North, Editor