Shiman Highway Project – Hubei, China

March 10, 2006

The Hubei Shiman Highway Project (Shiman) is an expressway which I am supervising for the World Bank, under construction in the NW corner of Hubei Province. A 105.1 km long road running from the city of Shiyan, it travels west towards Shaanxi province, ending at Manchuangan. Crossing mountainous terrain with about 40% of the road tunnels and bridges, it is an incredibly challenging project from an engineering point of view.

Twice a year I perform a supervision mission, accompanied by my various specialists. Since the project started in November 2004 they have made great progress and where there was once virgin territory we now see the infrastructure of a great highway rising. My wife Lis finds this quite disturbing, as she is morally opposed to development raping and pillaging the landscape, but I see the great benefits that will come from linking up the cities in China with a safe and efficient highway network. Let’s just say that we agree to disagree on this ..

As an example of what I mean about the impact of the expressway, consider the photos below which are typical of the project.

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At this stage of the construction there are four major components:

  • Earthworks: which consist of the sub-base of the highway (see the photo above);
  • Bridges and Culverts: which take the highway over obstacles or ensure no sudden changes of gradient;
  • Tunnels: what you do when you can’t go around something; and,
  • Slope Stabilization: Keeping the mountain sides from falling on you when you’ve made a cut through them.

Earthworks are basically easy. You get big machines and move earth (well, there is a bit more to it than that … but not much) but it is the others which are fascinating, especially how they do it here in China.

Crossing through the deep valleys we have some very high viaducts, some 60 m in the air. The photos below give an idea of what we are building.

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The construction of the viaducts consists of three basic steps. First, you need to get the foundation in place. Once this is done, you can then pour the columns from concrete. Finally, you put in place the beams at the top upon which the road rests.

Let’s say that you want to put down a foundation for a 60 m high viaduct. In the west we have machines which will bore into the soil and do all the work. Not in China. Here, the solution is much simpler. They give some workers a shovel and tell them to dig a hole. You don’t believe me? Have a close look at the photo below. You will see the fellow at the top of the foundation hole with a basket of rock which he has just raised up from the worker at the bottom who is working with hand tools. This is a sophisticated set up insofar as they have an electric winch for raising the rocks; in other locations it was a hand winch, kind of like you see on a wishing well.

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I don’t mean to be critical of this approach, quite the opposite. I think that it is amazing what the Chinese can achieve through strong arms and strong backs. There is a real need in China to create jobs, and doing as much as possible by hand helps to absorb the unemployed rural workers into the workforce. It is also a good deal for the contractor. The labourers earn about $3 a day (I asked them) so if it takes 3 months to do a foundation with two workers that is only $600. And I bet they are a lot faster than that.

The conditions for digging foundations can be very unpleasant. I took the photo below at a site where the soil was very wet and mucky. You can see the worker carrying away bucket after bucket of soil. But this wasn’t the worst of it. At the bottom of the foundation a worker was going at a rock with a pneumatic drill. The noise was unbearable at the surface, and there was clouds of dust rising from the hole. I doubt that he had very acute hearing by the time he was through with things.

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In spite of being dug manually, the final product is excellent. They are vertical, with a constant diameter all the way down, and once lined with concrete you would not know how they were done. In fact, my Spanish consultant didn’t believe me when I told him how they were dug. Hopefully he will now that I have the photos :-)

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Our project has one particular challenge: the Han River. This is one of China’s major rivers and we are putting a bridge across it. Foundations here are of course much more challenging as you have to put down caissons, keep them dry, and remove the soil. They have a very efficient process where they have small cement mixers on barges which take out concrete to the works in the river, and a pump for the ones closer to shore, but the logistics are very difficult to manage. Especially when the province upstream decides to open the sluice gates on their dam without warning, causing the river to rise by 6 m in the matter of hours. That served to wash away the barges and a lot of the works. Ho hum.

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Once the foundations are down you put up the columns. this is done by tying together a steel frame, putting it in place vertically, placing form work around the frame, and pouring concrete.

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As with the foundations, they used relatively unskilled labourers for much of this work. They are taught the simple task of how to tie together the steel (it doesn’t take much as the concrete provides all the bonding strength) and they go to it. The end result is very good and consistent. The larger challenge is getting the formwork correctly in place, but again they have tended to achieve this. I have only heard on one instance where a mistake was made and they needed to cut the column and redo the work. Now that is an expensive mistake.

The concreting takes real skill. You need to pump it in and vibrate it so that there are no air voids. You need to be careful not to over-vibrate it as that can compromise the integrity. A sign of good quality control is where the concrete is a consistent colour up the entire length of the columns. Some contractors acheived this with amazing consistency.

The final piece of the puzzle are the beams which go out horizontally and rest on the columns. These are cast out of concrete in a ‘casting yard’ and then launched to rest on the columns. The beams are ‘post tensioned’. This means that when they are cast there are hollow tubes that pass along the length of the beam. High strengh steel strands are passed through the tubes and connected to a hydraulic jacks. These put a certain amount of tension on the strands which are then anchored. Grout is then pumped in to fill the tubes. This pre-compression of the beam counterbalances the forces put on the beam by the traffic, significantly increasing the load bearing capacity.

In some locations the casting yard was built at one end of the bridge. The beams were ‘launched’ by building a small ‘railway’ which a crane straddles. The crane lifts the beam and moves along to the end from where it is launched horizontally. What is more impressive is when there is no space and they have to launch them from below. In this instance you get a very massive crane, capable of lifting very heavy weights to a great height. The photos below show such a beast, the size of the beams and the height they are launched to. It will probably come as no surprise that women make the best crane operators. They are capable of fine movements men have difficulties with. (BTW: in the top photo you can see the post-tensioning cables sticking out from the end of the beam).

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Enough of bridges. Let’s talk tunnels.

I am not ashamed to say that prior to this project I knew absolutely nothing about tunnels. New Zealand does not have a single road tunnel. Now, I know a very little bit about tunnels, enough to be impressed with those who build them.

During construction tunnels are cold, noisy, dark and damp (or downright wet if you break an aquifer as one of ours did). Even though we require ventilation of tunnels, this is not always done or there is simply not enough air being pumped in. Consequently, they are not pleasant places to work. They are always tidied up for Bank mission visits so we see them at their best. I’d love to see them during an un-announced visit.

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Our project is very fortunate to have James Allison as the team leader for the construction supervision team.  James is a mining engineer who learned his trade in West Australia. There are a variety of different tunneling approaches used and this project uses what is called the ‘New Austrian Tunneling Method’ (NATM). The basic concept is that you use the strength of the surrounding rock mass as the main component of tunnel support. They dig the tunnel in different ways depending on the type of material encountered. Blasting is, of course, and important element of the process.

As you have probably guessed by now, the tunnels are dug by hand, not using machines as we usually do in the west. Again, this is a very rational choice of the contractors. After all, they have 3 years to dig 3.1 km. Why rush it if you can spend less money and do it all by hand?

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All of our tunnels have two tubes, one for carrying the traffic in each direction. They start by digging a small pilot tunnel between the tubes, which is given a reinforced concrete structure in the tunnel. This forms part of the structure of each of the two tubes.  They then excavate outwards and downwards, using ‘shotcrete’ (a type of pumpable concrete which sticks to walls) on the inside of the excavated tunnel. They seem to be able to manage about 3 m a day when all goes well, but then problems invariably arise which slows them down. For example, we’ve encountered faults, major changes in rock type within a few metres, and even had some collapses, but fortunately no deaths as a key part of NATM is to monitor deflections so they know what was coming …

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Finally, let’s look at slope stabilisation. This is very important as we often cut our way through hillsides and so have very high embankments. During the design stage we noted that some proposed cuts were 70 m vertically (which is VERY high) and we insisted that they not exceed 50 m (still quite high). The soils in the area where we are building the highway are often quite poor so they have had problems in a few areas, and I saw a text-book example of shear failure where an entire hillside slumped.

Having said that, the Chinese generally do excellent slope stability work. As with everything else, it is very labour intensive but they excel themselves even further by using waste material: rock. Most of the stabilization is done using hand-laid rock faced retaining walls as shown in the photo below. Higher up they use reinforced concrete for extra strength, but most of the material is rock which has been excavated elsewhere on the site.

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They are masters of economy. In the photo below you can see how they are using excess rock to bond two layers of concrete. Why spend money on reinforcing steel if you can use rock for free? For reasons such as this, the roads cost a fraction to build in China as they do elsewhere, even allowing for the different labour costs.

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It is impressive to see them put up a 10 m high wall, entirely made from stone, where the only tools they have are chisels, buckets of cement, and a plumb-bob comprised of a stone hanging by a string. If you didn’t see them doing it, you wouldn’t believe it was possible.

This is a good place to end. I hope that this has given you a small appreciation of both the challenges of expressway building in China, but also the truly impressive way the Chinese are going about it. I consider myself particularly blessed to have the opportunity to work on a project such as this. As an engineer it is a once in a lifetime chance, for which I will always be grateful.


Xiaoxiang Highway Project – Hubei, China

March 3, 2006

You know that a trip is not going to go smoothly when your wife comes into your room and wakes you just before 5 a.m. with the announcement ‘The alarm clock didn’t go off and your flight leaves in an hour’.

Suffice to say that we broke all records. I had my clothes on in a minute. Lis rushed out and got the car on the driveway. Grabbed my computer and bags and was out the door within six minutes. Breaking the speed limit, we were at the airport just under 20 minutes from the time Lis woke me. Whew … I was on my way to China and trying to do a four week mission in just over three so it was a good thing that I caught the Air Canada flight.

Arriving in Toronto I was pleased to see that my suitcase had also made it, as I was resigned to it missing the flight due to my late check in. I grabbed a shower and breakfast at the Air Canada lounge before catching up with my colleague Anil who was joining me for the mission. Anil is an environmentalist who retired late last year from the Bank and the poor fellow had just got to Toronto two days earlier from vacation in Tanzania so he was going to suffer big time from jet lag.

It was a nice change to have someone to travel with and Anil and I caught up with a lot of things on the flight to Beijing. With many years of practical experience, I’ve learned a great deal from Anil not only about environmental issues, but also about how to be a Task Manager for the Bank.

We arrived in Beijing and breezed through immigration. Anil’s suitcase was out quickly but mine didn’t appear. Ho hum. It’s an occupational hazard with all the traveling that I do, but it’s intriguing that the last two times have both been with Air Canada. Not a good advertisement for them!

There was nobody around from Air Canada but I found my way to the Air China office where I reported the missing bag. They provided me with a form and told me to call Air Canada and check on the status. Because of my previous experience, I asked them to call the number then and there just to make sure it worked. Sure enough, they called the number and nobody answered. They then tried the general airport number. Again, nobody answered. Welcome to the nightmare that is … Air Canada’s Customer Service. 

By the time I finished with the baggage people Anil had disappeared so I went through to the domestic departures. I caught up with Anil in the lounge and Jean-Marie was also there, having just arrived from Paris. Jean-Marie is my highway engineer and is someone else who has taught me a lot about doing my job well. I’ve been very fortunate to inherit projects with Anil and Jean-Marie on my team.

I continued to call the Air Canada number every 15 minutes to no avail. Finally after 2 h I called my office who gave me Air Canada’s reservation number. I immediately got hold of someone and asked a manager to contact the baggage people and have them call me. Another hour passed and I found myself on the tarmac as our plane waited for a take-off slot.  Ever the optimist I tried Air Canada again and got hold of someone! Lucky me, or so I thought.

When I asked why nobody answered I was told I must have called the wrong number. Uh, no, I had it programmed in my cell phone. This was a bad start. I was then told that there was absolutely no record of my bag in their system. Not good. So when may my bag arrive? There are flights every other day from Toronto so probably Friday, if they find it. But they could send it sooner via Vancouver which has daily flights or with another airline … Yes, but they won’t. What a great airline! 

So I arrive in Wuhan with the clothes on my back and a few small things I had in my carry on. Ms. Liu, from the Hubei Provincial Communications Dept. (HPCD) me us at the airport and she didn’t believe me when I said my luggage hadn’t arrived since I wasn’t upset. No sense throwing a wobbly over something you have no control over. Save them (when you can!) for when they bring some benefit (besides feeling better!).

After our meeting to confirm the program for our visit, I went with Liu Zhefu, my social specialist, shopping to get some things to tide me over until my case arrived. Ms. Liu directed us to a shopping centre but it was obviously aimed at people much better paid than I am since the shirts all cost $50-$100. Hard to wear since I get my tailor in Bangkok to do custom made shirts for $20. Especially since I’m in China, not Paris. We managed to find a sale and I got a dress shirt. We then headed over to another shopping centre where there was a Nike shop so I got another shirt, some trousers and running shoes.

China is 11 time zones from Washington D.C. so jet lag is a real issue. What does one do when you wake up at 05:00 ready to roll? Go for a bike ride of course. I have a bike in Wuhan which I leave with the HPCD which they had kindly delivered the night before. I was on the road by 05:30 which is the best time to ride in China – although still dark, there is very little traffic on the road. Come 07:00 the buses are out in force and that is when you want to be off the road. 

I have several rides that I do in Wuhan. My favourite is to cycle across the Yangtze river to ‘East Lake’ and cycle around the lake. It is 50 km so takes about 1.5 h. It was fun to be on my bike with the empty streets and I was at the lake by 06:00. The sun was rising and the waters were very still. It was an idyllic way to start my first day back in China. Unfortunately, the idyll was broken by a tyre puncture. Bother. At least I had the right gear with me so I swapped the tyre out under a street light, watched by a Chinese fellow.

It was quite light by the time I got the tyre fixed and it was great to be cycling in the beauty of East Lake. Unfortunately, the time it had taken to fix the tyre meant that I had my return run after 07:00 so I was playing dodge the buses – and even worse, people getting on/off without looking. There were quite a few cyclists out and one student began racing me which was fun. Anyway, got back to the hotel without incident after a good workout.

After breakfast with my team we went to the HPCD and confirmed our schedule. This meant that we were leaving that afternoon for Shiyan, about 600 km NW of Wuhan. After packing, which didn’t take too long since Air Canada still had my bag, I called Air Canada for an update. I was told that they hadn’t found it and that it would probably be a week. Not good. The fellow then called back 2 minutes later to tell me that the bag would be in China on Friday afternoon. When I enquired why he had told me before it wasn’t found he admitted not checking the computer. He said that they would send it to Wuhan airport and I would need to go to the airport to collect it. I declined telling them it was their responsibility to get it to my hotel. They called back and told me it was all arranged – the hotel would collect it. I was to pay the hotel and visit their office for reimbursement. I don’t think so I told them. I was amazed (or gob smacked to use a kiwi term) that having left my bag in Canada, making me wait several days, that they would expect me to go through all these extra hoops. Even United, when it was going through the difficult time of bankruptcy, didn’t treat passengers with such disdain.

Of course the problem now was that I would be leaving that evening for Shiyan so I asked them to arrange to send it there. If the Shangri-La in Wuhan was difficult, Shiyan was insurmountable. In the end they decided to send the case to Wuhan airport Friday night, Saturday morning have it collected by the post office EMS service, and sent to Shiyan. Since Sunday I was leaving Shiyan I declined this offer as it would probably miss me there, and there would also have been too many hands to pilfer things. I had them send it to the Shangri-La and I would get it the following Wednesday. One week without my case is a bother, but much safer than it playing catch up with a moving target.

We drove north from Wuhan on the expressway system and then stopped at the start of the Xiaoxiang expressway (XXE) for the photo below. I’m on the left, with Anil Somani, Jean-Marie Braun and Liu Zhefu. In the background you can see the top part of the magnificent bridge which marks the entrance to the expressway. They sure know how to do bridges here in China.


Our plan was to undertake a supervision visit on the XXE which had been open for 5 months and then continue to Shiyan for supervising the Shiman expressway (SME). The latter is still under construction. We drove over about 30 km of the road and it looked very good before heading to the city where we were staying for the night. Our hotel was a 3 Star and relatively comfortable, but cold. It dropped to 0 C during the night and it was very chilly throughout the hotel to say the least. There was also no internet connection which was good insofar as it meant that I wasn’t able to check e-mails.

The following morning we were on the road by 08:00 after a disappointing breakfast. I have a real problem being a vegetarian here in Hubei Province; much more so than anywhere else save Inner Mongolia.

We visited a road we have financed which connects the XXE to the local city. We had them install concrete barriers down the length of the road to try and make them safer since dangerous overtaking is a major problem here in China. Unfortunately, they still did silly things, like put a pedestrian crossing in the middle of an intersection. Not only is it unsafe for pedestrians, but the paint will soon be gone J. The HPCD staff were also surprised that the contractor did this and promised to put it right.



The XXE itself is a fine highway. It is a delight to travel on a well engineered road. The big challenge was keeping the driver from traveling too fast. The first year of a project is called the ‘Defect Liability Period’ when the contractor much fix things, and half way through it looks like there will be relatively few issues to resolve.


One area of disappointment was in the monitoring and control centre. As the photo below shows, we have built a large centre for monitoring the road. This shows information on speed, weather, use of emergency phones, video monitoring, etc. Unfortunately, it does not work properly yet. 


We had worked out that there was a problem earlier when we stopped to check that the emergency phones were working. We got a recorded message saying the lines were busy and we should wait a moment. After 5 minutes we worked out that there was never going to be any response. Later, we stopped at another phone and it was completely dead; there wasn’t even a recorded message. We tried the one across the road and the same thing happened. Mr. Du from the HPCD and I posed for the photo below. 


The manager of the control centre told us that we had the misfortune to test the phones at the time when they were running some debugging software. I have to admit that I found this a little difficult to believe. I mean what is the probability that they are running the debugging software at the exact moment when the six-monthly World Bank team are visiting the site, and when they are pressing the button. When I pointed out that the data for the other site was wrong – it only showed us pressing the button on one side of the road – he acknowledged that some of the phones were not working. Much easier to be truthful from the beginning. When we checked later on we found one that worked so at least we knew the entire system wasn’t down.

The monitoring problems were minor compared to the overall achievements of the XXE and it was nice to be able to report that there were relatively few issues the Bank team were concerned about.

Mr. Zhou from the SME team met us and we did a vehicle change before heading to Shiyan and the requisite banquet. Unfortunately, there was little for me to eat which was better than lunch which was (i) white rice; (ii) carrots; and (iii) lotus root. Protein? What’s that … While I don’t have high expectations for food, I do need a balanced diet. After dinner I went to the local market and bought some nuts, yoghurt and other things to keep me going for a while. They even had a granola which, although laced with sugar, is better than fried food which is what breakfasts in Chinese hotels usually consists of.

I was able to Skype Lis and have a chat with her Friday night, before crashing for an interrupted night’s sleep. Almost over the jet lag. I was up at 06:30 and went for a bike ride around Shiyan. It is a very hilly place and so it is great exercise. I have a bike race at the end of May called ‘Mountains of Misery’ and I really need to get my legs stronger or I’ll flame. After a 10 km warm up I cycled over to the hilly part of town and did 35 km of hill riding. A good workout, but I have a long way to go to be ready for Mountains of Misery.

After another chat with Lis  I spent the day reading and listening to some Podcast sermons. At 14:00 I went out with Zhefu for another bike ride. It was a beautiful sunny day and we drove up into a mountain road outside of town. It was delightful to ride through the fresh air on a warm, sunny day.  The road was quite steep in places so the going wasn’t easy, but we both enjoyed the ride, especially the long downhill run back to Shiyan.

This evening I have another banquet and then tomorrow we head up country to visit the site. I’ll be taking my bike with me as I hope to get a few rides in at the end of the day. Should be an interesting week …