Building big, done right, can change society

Denmark is about to witness construction of its third massive marine infrastructure project in a generation. Claus F Baunkjær explains the significance and scale of the Fehmarnbelt project.

Over just the span of a single generation, Denmark has completed two mega marine infrastructure projects for both rail and road traffic. And soon, we will undertake a third fixed link crossing the Fehmarnbelt between Denmark and the Federal Republic of Germany.

The first was the immense Great Belt Bridge, an 18km-long combined bridge and tunnel construction that connects the Islands of Zealand and Funen in Denmark. The second was the Øresund Fixed Link, also a combined bridge and tunnel project for rail and road traffic, which connects Denmark and Sweden.

Both infrastructure projects have been technically, environmentally and financially successful with high socio-economic benefits. This proud engineering legacy, serves us well, as we undertake the Fehmarnbelt Fixed Link connecting Denmark and Germany, which will dwarf its predecessors in scope, but reap many of the same socio-economic dynamic benefits.

In 1997/1998, The Great Belt Fixed Link tied Denmark together, significantly reducing travel time and in doing so created a single domestic market. A few years later in 2000, the Øresund Link connected Denmark and Sweden, improving mobility and in turn creating an entirely new region with a common job and housing market. Since their opening, traffic across the Great Belt has increased by almost 500% and doubled on the Øresund crossing.

The Fehmarnbelt Fixed Link between Denmark and Germany is the logical next step, and many of the same engineers, who worked on the previous mega infrastructure projects, are now contributing to the realisation of the Fehmarnbelt project. The link will consist of a combined rail and road infrastructure project in the shape of an 18km-long immersed tunnel between eastern Denmark and northern Germany as well as extensive land works for rail and road traffic on both sides of the Belt.

The link will significantly reduce travel time between Scandinavia and Northern Germany, and make it possible to reroute much of the transit traffic currently taking a 160km detour; making significant reductions of travel times, energy consumption and CO2-emissions possible. 

The Fehmarnbelt project is foremost a European infrastructure project. The benefits of a faster and always accessible infrastructure between Scandinavia and central Europe replacing the existing ferry service are obvious, which is why Fehmarnbelt is a priority project for the European Union.

The Fehmarnbelt Fixed Link will remove a bottleneck, which currently limits the potential for trade, tourism, education and other forms of cooperation and development in the Baltic Sea region. We already see businesses making major investments along the traffic corridor in expectation of the logistical benefits. 

The project is also from an engineering point of view an immense project. The link will, by far, be the world’s longest immersed tube tunnel and the longest for combined rail and road traffic. However, it will be built using proven and reliable technology.

The development from the Great Belt to the Øresund Link and now Fehmarn is a story about how large infrastructure projects can change society by changing geography and thereby enhancing mobility and it’s a story about skilled engineers, contractors, environmental experts and other specialists in their respective fields. Today we can claim that the Fehmarnbelt Fixed Link will be built with a known technology, but the framework condition for creating large infrastructure projects has changed remarkably over the last decade.

The interaction with neighbours and civil society in general has become increasingly important. Citizen involvement is critically important to ensure that the broader publics concerns are addressed and taken seriously into consideration both in the planning, the approval and the construction phase of realising the project.

Thus, perhaps the greatest challenge that remains today is the expectations towards infrastructure construction by society. For several years now and throughout the construction of the Great Belt and the Øresund fixed links in Denmark and Sweden, we have seen a clear trend - client companies must handle very high expectations towards environmental protection, budget control, workers health and safety, social responsibility and safety for the users of the infrastructure and other important issues.

The planning and approval phase of large-scale infrastructure projects has become even more important, intensive and demanding and now takes significantly longer time and resources. The planning and construction of cross-border projects can be complicated due to still existing differences in legal and administrative procedures, cultural differences and language which must be accounted for early in the planning phase.

Two countries can have similar high standards, while still having very different legal traditions and frameworks, cultural differences in administration and differences in implementation and decision-making. As a client company, we have to take proper account of these framework conditions posing a great challenge for the organisation and planning of the project in all its phases. We have become increasingly reliant on skilled technical advisors and consultants, who serve a critical role in providing up to date, specialised and detailed knowledge documentation concerning a broad range of technical, legal and environmental issues.

Our technical advisors must be able to provide a deep and broad expertise and capabilities across many different fields and at the same time proactively account for the special challenges connected to large projects and perhaps especially cross-border projects. These are some of the most important framework conditions facing large scale cross border infrastructure projects and within we as a client organisation must operate. As a professional client company, we can - and will - meet these challenges.

As is often the case, the most complex and challenging projects are also those of the largest importance. While realising the Fehmarnbelt Fixed Link certainly isn’t easy, the benefits to future generations of Europeans will certainly be worth the enormous effort.

Claus F Baunkjær is the chief executive of Femern A/S, the Danish planning company charged with preparing the Fehmarnbelt Tunnel across the Baltic Sea between the Danish island of Lolland and the German island of Fehmarn.