Why China Can Build Megaprojects So Much Faster

Grant Shapps was on Marr this morning answering a question about China’s offer to build HS2 in 5 years.  Shapps was sceptical quoting the different planning, legal and land aquisition systems.  All of which are correct, but they dont address the fundmental area in which the Chinese are demonstraebly faster – construction.  After all on many very complex projects such as the Macua-Kuhai-Hing Kong Bridge and Tunnel they still relay on international consultancies (such as my own AECOM) to do the design work.

I have seen first hand on site all over Africa and Asia chinese funded Megaprojects under construction.  They are very impressive.  Undoubtedly they have made great strides on improving safety and reducing corruption which has held so many emerging economies back.  Now if you fake concrete tests to keep a project ón trac ‘you are more likely to go to jail than get a promotion.  Certainly it also helps that national, regional and local projects are ruthlessly aligned around a single vision.

The key differences though are that they do things differently.

This starts with the design to be implemented.  They have fully shifted from design through sheets and drawings to design via models.  There simply aren’t enough CAD technicians in the world to draw up sheets for even one of some of their megaprojects.  That means that they basically design to the schematic (30%) stage, based on a model,  and then start building.  Of course many emerging economies are notorious for just designing to the (sub) 10% stage and then ‘sort it out during construction”, often with horribly badly trained construction managers.  The chinese are not like this.  They break projects into sections of model – based on terrain and engineering solutions to that terrain, then have design teams sort things out as they go.  All they are worried about before starting is that problems are solvable, and because they break projects into sections they work on them in parallel not series.  This represents a different non risk averse culture.  They don’t feel they have to solve every small detailed design problem before starting.

They also use on site techniques roman engineers would recognise.  Pegging sites out by eye, and laying out peg to peg using gps and other surveying equipment on wheelbarrows etc.  This is aided by a modular prototype basis for there designs.  For example railway embankments, using a standard (deliberately slightly overengineered) grade to each so they don’t have to redesign and recalculate slope stability for every point on the track.  Using this approach they, knowing the model and prototype design works, simply peg out and build by eye using total stations to main consistency of the built levels with the model.  They also take every engineering step to shorten the later stages of construction.  For example on railways using pre-built steel tracks and bases, and building all of the electricity infrastructure at the same time.

Can HS2 be built in 5 years using chinese techniques, and safely, yes.

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