Quick Note: Barcelona Rail Tunnel

Barcelona’s rail tunnel connecting the existing high-speed rail station, Sants, with city center, has just been completed. The tunnel’s total length is 5.8 km. As for cost:

The tunnel has cost over €179·3m to build, including extensive measures to protect historic buildings such as Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia from any settlement.

I believe this sets a new modern-day record for low construction costs – about $40 million per km – certainly in cases of inner-urban construction. It balances out the city’s Line 9 boondoggle, which has run so many times over budget it’s now a full $180 million per km.


  1. Stephen Smith

    In other words, literally 1% the cost per km of East Side Access? Presumably the latter project was more difficult, but I have a hard time believe it was 100 times (or even 10 times) harder.

  2. Alon Levy

    Sigh. Link fixed. And yes, this means it’s 1% the cost of ESA. It’s not a normal cost by any means – usually inner-urban construction like this is $100-250 million/km – but it’s what you get when you make sure the construction is conservative and your contractors are good.

  3. orulz

    Some of these numbers coming out of Spain these days are so cheap as to be unbelievable. Are we sure these numbers aren’t doctored?

    • Alon Levy

      Well, sometimes the numbers are exceeded. Again, look at Line 9, which has run over from a budget at €1.9 billion ($50 million/km) to €6.5 billion ($180 million/km), leading to unfavorable comparisons with Madrid.

    • Andre Lot

      Spain (and Portugal and France) share the follow characteristics, for the good and for the worse:

      – cheaper construction costs due to less stringent regulations

      – relatively streamlined consultation / public input / licensing process. They all have administrative courts that can essentially put cloture on complaints about a project, avoiding costly last-minute changes to appease last-minute plaintiffs

      – lack of a general, catch-all nuisance law that allows almost anyone to be qualified as an “interested party”. Essentially, one cannot sue for nuisance coming from a public approved project. Citizens are just expected to “put up” with – say – one year of noise and 8 weeks of heavy dust for the good of the country/city.

      – expedite, and much more broad, condemnation via eminent domain powers. The governments take your house, farm or empty lot fist, pay what it is deemed fair, and discussions will not stop the project.

      As a result of all of the previous, projects are usually built in relatively large blocks, and go uninterrupted, if sometimes delayed. As a result, costs go down significantly when interruption and piecemeal construction drive costs up – which is the case on tunnels, bridges, most highway construction and so on.

      There is zero chance such practices would ever, ever, ever be accepted in New York City or common law countries in general.

      • orulz

        Eminent domain, even in the US, is quite well practiced and has faced, and mostly stood up to, countless legal challenges. Once the public benefit of a project has been established, little can be done to stop ED. For all the yelping and complaining, it still works pretty well in the US.

        Reverse condemnation suits do not put a stop to Eminent Domain and they do not stop projects. They are essentially claiming that the compensation was inadequate and asking the courts to decide. I suppose the threat of reverse condemnation COULD slow a project down due to the risk that the courts would require additional compensation and that additional compensation would blow the budget. I don’t think that usually happens.

        Now, if people who don’t want their property taken go and complain to their representatives, and get enough leverage with enough of them to get a project axed, then THAT can stop a project. I imagine this applies to France as well.

        Point taken, though, about the environmental review process, which in the US is confrontational by design. Same for our oversensitivity to impacts during a construction period. I think that comes from the media more than anything.

        Also remember that in Spain and France, the employees’ pensions and healthcare costs are NOT included as a part of the project cost (since they are covered through taxes.) In the US, they must be incorporated into the construction costs.

        • Alon Levy

          In France, pensions are included in compensation. They’re mostly paid for by a dedicated 50% surcharge on wages levied on the employer – in other words, if you make €40,000 a year before taxes, your employer has to add another €20,000 to the national pension fund. In addition, employers have to pay for private health insurance for their employees, like in the US, though it’s much cheaper because it’s just add-on insurance on top of the basic universal public plan.

          The process in France is NIMBY-prone as well, especially for rural construction. France protects farmers more strongly than the US, and farmers form a powerful and intransigent lobby. The way SNCF keeps costs low is by taking years to do community outreach and determine the best alignment, overcompensating farmers so that they won’t sue, and offering land swap deals that rationalize the shapes of the plots. Even then, the farmers usually make confrontational noises in the media, in order to maximize the amount of money they get – they just go quiet after the money is paid.

      • Andre Lot

        Rural, active farmers (those using the land for production) are not the major NIMBYs in rail or highway projects. As Alon described, they can be appeased with money and practical arrangements.

        I think that most objection, and the fiercest ones, comes from urban areas instead, or leisure rural owners.

  4. Alexis

    Is there any sense of why some projects do so much better than others? Why is this great, and Line Nine not?

      • Danny

        The tunneling costs for the East Side Access project were only ~$430 million. So this still came in cheaper, but the difference is ~3x…not ~100x.

        Tunneling in Manhattan is tough stuff, just from a geological standpoint. But in addition to the sheer geological constraints, they also had to work in a pretty sharp curve, which limits the types of TBMs that can be used, only allowing the shorter, slower, and more difficult to configure variety. In addition, the total length of the ESA tunnel was shorter, so the fixed costs could not be spread out very well on a per km basis.

        The ESA project, and project management in general in the US, has its problems…but tunneling costs would be like 20th on the list.

        I haven’t done any in depth analysis, but from the projects that I have taken a look at, I would rank the top problems as follows: 1) Project design flaws/problems, 2) Regulatory compliance, and 3) Political interference, and 4) Station construction

        • Alon Levy

          SAS has fairly high tunneling costs. The original budget, since exceeded, calls for about $1 billion per station plus $1 billion for tunneling.

          The issue with ESA is that deep-level construction cuts tunneling costs at the expense of much higher station costs. In Madrid, the practice is to build as shallow as possible, in order to cut the costs of stations and other things that can’t be done with a TBM. In New York, it’s the opposite: there’s a preference for deep tunneling, which makes the tunnels relatively straightforward but necessitates budget-busting station caverns.

      • Andre Lot

        Building the Second Avenue Subway as a shallow bore would require, essentially, closure of the the aforementioned 2nd Avenue for duration of works.

        Lower station construction costs could be achieved [i]if[/i] there was acceptance of much more disruption on the surface level.

  5. Richard Mlynarik

    Madrid Atocha-Chamartín (the third pair of through tracks in a third tunnel connecting those former terminal stations) at 7.3km for circa €200m (I haven’t kept track of the budget) is comparably impressive, and has much more complex interfaces at each end, but lacks the “SOS Sagrada Familia” drama and associated exceptional engineering of Barcelona. No intermediate stations on this, like the the Sants-Sagrera UIC link, but unlike the other Atocha-Chamartín connectors.

    BTW not everything goes right in Spain every time: the first (Francost!) tunnel in that corridor end up nicknamed Túnel de la risa with construction starting in 1933 and ending in 1967. (Second: 2004-2008; third bored through at 20m/day(!!!) April 2010-Feb 2011, but a couple years away from entering service.)

    Meanwhile, in the Land of the Free…

  6. Nathanael

    Wow. So I guess they need to finish the Girona tunnel, figure out the final arrangements for a Figueres station, and build the “countryside track”, and there will finally be a standard-gauge route from Madrid to London.

  7. Pingback: Construction Costs, Third World Edition | Pedestrian Observations
  8. Pingback: Consensus and Vision | Pedestrian Observations
  9. Pingback: Cost Concerns, Reasonable and Otherwise | Pedestrian Observations
  10. Pingback: Why Avoiding Stereotypes is Important (Hoisted from Comments) | Pedestrian Observations
  11. Pingback: Excuses for High Construction Costs | Pedestrian Observations

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.