By Tess Macallan, Journalist, Infrastructure Magazine

Across Australia, ambitious multi-billion dollar road and rail projects are in development. However, with ongoing labour shortages, state and federal governments need to ensure there are enough workers with the necessary skills to get these projects to the finish line. That’s why the Victorian Government invested in a training centre designed specifically to equip workers with the skills required for the state’s upcoming tunnel projects, including the North East Link and Suburban Rail Loop.

In 2020, the Victorian Government opened the $16 million Victorian Tunnelling Centre (VTC) at Holmesglen Institute’s Drummond Street campus at Chadstone.

The facility features two replica tunnels, multi-purpose engineering work rooms, concrete lining spray simulators and virtual reality experiences. The centre has the capacity to train up to 5,000 workers a year in underground construction and maintenance, including training for tunnel boring machine (TBM) operators.

Holmesglen’s Associate Director of the Centre for Energy and Infrastructure, Dr Ross Digby, explained to Infrastructure why the centre’s two replica tunnels are a game-changer when it comes to educating the next generation of tunnel workers.

“One is a segment lined tunnel that will normally be constructed with a tunnel boring machine. It’s 25m long, 7.2m external diameter, and has been constructed with segments that were from the Metro Tunnel Project across our partnership project in Melbourne,” Dr Digby said.

There is also what is known as a road tunnel or a mined tunnel, which is the width of a three-lane freeway. Dr Digby said this would have been constructed using a long drill or road header. With these two tunnels, the centre is able to cover the main tunnelling methodologies used in the construction of most road tunnels.

The facility is a first for Australia in providing students with the opportunity to learn within both replica mined and bored tunnels on one site. Major projects currently in progress in Australia, such as Cross Yarra Partnership’s (CYP) work for Melbourne Metro, Sydney’s WestConnex, Brisbane’s Cross River Rail and Snowy Hydro 2.0, involve the construction of tunnels, and utilise a mix of civil and underground tunnelling equipment, including TBMs.

Therefore, it is vital that Australia has a workforce capable of operating safely in these complex and potentially hazardous environments.

Australia’s skilled labour shortage

The global pandemic has contributed to labour shortages around the world, and Australia’s infrastructure sector is not immune to these challenges.

Infrastructure Australia’s 2022 Infrastructure Market Capacity Report found that as of October 2022, Australia’s public infrastructure projects were facing a shortage of 214,000 skilled workers. Projections estimate this number will peak at 248,000 in 2023.

The report states that public infrastructure will continue to face significant workplace skills shortages until at least early 2026 and that action must be taken in both public infrastructure planning and workforce training to ensure Australia can see through the completion of infrastructure works.

Infrastructure Australia said projected growth is largely driven by major projects, which make up about 70 per cent of demand. The workforce demand for major public infrastructure projects will peak at almost 306,000 in 2023, close to double the demand in 2020, and triple the demand in 2016.

Further complicating the issue is that Australia’s public infrastructure sector has ever-shifting needs, due to new processes, equipment or technology. As Infrastructure Australia’s report notes, if workers do not update their skillset, employers can have difficulty finding people to fulfill roles. Although a sector can appear to have a large workforce, those workers may not have the right skills or their knowledge may be out of date.

Keeping up with the industry

To address these challenges, stay ahead of changing tunnelling technology, and provide dedicated training for its major projects, the Victorian Government funded the centre through Rail Projects Victoria.

The centre is purpose-built and Holmesglen Institute engages an industry advisory group, comprising senior players from Australia’s tunnelling industry, to advise and guide on how to best prepare trainees for a future in tunnelling. From the outset, the centre’s services have been underpinned by rigorous training methodology and a strong commitment to safety and best industry practice.

Dr Digby said the tunnelling centre is more than just a training facility. It works alongside Monash University, with its doctoral students undertaking specialist research at the centre. “It’s a place where we get industry together to demonstrate new equipment, demonstrate new procedures, and get people in to understand about careers,” Dr Digby said.

With tunnel boring machines becoming increasingly ubiquitous across Australia’s infrastructure projects, Dr Digby said the centre is working on how to upskill workers in the operation of this technology. “We’re continually refining and building our programs to meet the needs and to work with the current technologies that the tunnelling industry is using.

It’s changing all the time.” In providing new tunnelling technologies in use by industry, the centre aims to be a place workers can return to during the course of their career. “We’re not just providing them at the start of the process, it’s a lifelong journey,” Dr Digby said.

The advantages of simulation learning

The centre uses a range of digital technologies to help trainees experience a tunnel environment without exposing them to any potential hazardous they may encounter on an actual work site. These include HoloLens, virtual reality, and mixed reality.

The centre has a long drill and a rock bolting simulator, which allows for high level specialised training in a simulated environment. With the mixed technology the centre uses – HoloLens glasses from Microsoft – Dr Digby said students get to experience a simulated version of very dangerous equipment right before their eyes.

On top of digital technology, the centre uses different methods to create a sense of realism inside the training tunnels. This includes temperature controls in the tunnels, putting water in them, and replicating the sounds of an operational environment.

“We can put smoke in there if need be. We can do anything we want really to completely replicate what it’s like to be in that underground environment, be it a segment lined tunnel, or be it a road header mined tunnel,” Dr Digby said.

Ready for anything

Tunnelling work comes with a high amount of safety hazards. There’s the risk of collapse, falling rocks, confined spaces, fires and water inrush. TBMs and other heavy machinery also have the potential to be potentially hazardous.

This poses a difficulty in educating workers, as they cannot just go inside a real tunnel environment. Prior to the Victorian Tunnelling Centre, training courses would rely on traditional teaching methods, including diagrams and videos, to assist trainees in their learning.

Dr Digby said providing a practical learning environment for students is really important, particularly when it comes to emergency situations. “If something’s happened and they’ve got to undertake an emergency procedure, and they’ve only read about it in a book or role-played it in the classroom, it just doesn’t work,” Dr Digby said.

Now with these tunnels, the centre is able to contextualise the training and enhance it by putting equipment or things like refuge chambers in there to create a realistic simulated operational environment.

Dr Digby said recreating emergency situations is important because in a real world situation, a worried or distraught worker will only increase the risk of danger to themselves and others. “If you’re down in the tunnel and you start freaking out, you’re not only putting yourself at risk, you’re putting other people at risk,” Dr Digby said.

The centre’s 20 seat refuge chamber allows students to practice for the event of an emergency. “We identify what are the really high risk situations or equipment intensive situations that the trainees will experience when they’re working, but create them in a safe way in the tunnel environment, so they can experience exactly what it’s like without actually having to be put at risk, and put others at risk as well.

It also improves the safe movement of workers around equipment and effectively manages space in the tunnel during a project. “There are carefully designed training scenarios our expert trainers can put in place down there, which are designed to make people feel uncomfortable, so they understand which tunnelling roles are or aren’t for them.

Our focus is on health and safety, teaching new skills and helping trainees develop their future career,” Dr Digby said. However, what could make one person cut and run from a career in tunnelling could be the reason someone else decides this is their dream role.

Ample opportunities

Dr Digby said a benefit of the facility is that it attracts people who might not have considered tunnelling previously. “People need to understand that there are careers in tunnelling,” Dr Digby said. Those studying at the tunnelling centre can earn Certificate and Diploma qualifications as well as safety-based training for working underground.

With tunnelling works for Victoria’s longest road tunnels – the North East Link — underway, the VTC will play a major role in producing a skilled workforce that can get the job done safely and to the highest international standards.

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