Italian Firms Ask Court to Intervene in Dispute Over Collapsed Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Railway Tunnel

Floor of one service tunnel on fast train line collapsed in October. Contractors say 20 cm concrete not sufficient to withstand water pressure.

The collapsed tunnel floor.

A colossal planning failure or just an engineering dispute that’s been blown out of proportion? The express train line being built between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem has hit the headlines again, and not in a good way.

The Italian engineering firm that is a partner in the project has ordered the halt of all work in the connecting corridors until their stability can be confirmed, after a service tunnel on the line collapsed in October. 

Work on the A1 high-speed railway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem began in 2001. It replaced an earlier plan to upgrade the old line.

The tunnel that collapsed was one of 46 escape corridors dug alongside a pair of tunnels 11.6 kilometers long between Sha’ar Hagai and Mevasseret Zion, on the western approach to Jerusalem.  

The tunnels have been dug over the last three years by Israel’s Shapir Civil & Marine Engineering and the Italian firm Impresa Pizzarotti & CSpA, at an estimated cost of around 2 billion shekels ($513 million). The total cost of the project is estimated at 8.6 billion shekels. Last  October 16 the floor of Tunnel 24 split, about five kilometers into the route of the main tunnel. It seems the heavy rains put too much pressure on the concrete floor and it buckled.  The entrance to the tunnel has been blocked off and steel supports have been placed in the tunnel to hold it up.

Similar, smaller cracks have been discovered in other nearby service tunnels, which has brought work at that part of the project to a halt.

Shapir and Pizarotti claim the concrete walls of the service tunnels were made only 20 centimeters thick, despite repeated warnings that this was insufficient against subterranean water pressure.  

The contractors say there is a clear danger of collapse in 11 service tunnels and at least 24 tunnels need immediate reinforcement at various places.

According to industry sources who did not want their names published, the repair work will push the project’s completion date back by an additional six to 12 months and cost between 50 million shekels to 100 million shekels. 

Israel Railways calls these estimates gross exaggerations, saying the problem is limited to specific points and that Shapir and Pizarotti have inflated their claims as part of ongoing engineering and legal disputes with the state-owned railway company over the project, which is already a year behind schedule.

Israel Railways admits that the wall in one of the service tunnels has cracked, but says only five such tunnels need repairs, and the time and financial costs are minimal.

In light of what they call the gravity of the problem, Shapir and Pizarotti have asked to bring the matter to arbitration. Israel Railways is being evasive about the matter, say the contractors. Late last week they asked the Tel Aviv District Court to appoint an arbitrator, citing a “real danger to the tunnels.”

Shapir and Pizarotti are partners in building Section C, the most complex part of the project, which has been subject to serious problems and delays for nearly a decade.

Israel’s longest tunnel

Section C is 13.2 kilometers long. It includes a pair of tunnels that are the longest ever built in Israel, at 11.6 kilometers, known as Tunnel 3. There is another pair of tunnels, 1.2 kilometers long. The track between the two sets of double tunnels will be built on two parallel bridges, 144 meters long, over Yitla Stream.

The 46 connecting tunnels are 15 meters long and are spaced at intervals of around 250 meters along the route of Tunnel 3. They are for emergency use, and some serve as electrical and control rooms. The connecting tunnels were designed by a firm hired directly by Israel Railways.

Shapir says it warned in 211 that the design of the service tunnels was inadequate to cope with water seepage and that it feared that they could collapse. Shapir and Pizarotti said that the depth at which the tunnels were built required concrete walls of at least a meter. Israel Railways suspected the contractors wanted to add the additional concrete in order to raise the project costs, and decided that 20 centimeters was adequate.

In 2012, Shapir and Pizarotti presented the railways  with an engineering opinion from two foreign consulting companies that backed up their fears the tunnels would not withstand the water pressure, but IR ordered work to continue in accordance with the original plans.

Shapir’s court filing from last week states that the railways told the company that it had reexamined the plans and approved them.

In addition, says Shapir, IR’s own advisors, GeoConsult, a global expert in digging tunnels, pointed out the flaw in a report from April 2013, but these comments were erased by Israel Railways.

Shapir and Pizarotti said the service tunnels are built as one piece, in other words a single concrete element includes the floor, walls and overhead arch of the tunnel. As a result, the buckling of the floor of the tunnel has completely broken the entire element, and the cracks found in 14 nearby tunnels leave them no choice but to reinforce all the concrete layers in those tunnels too. This is an extremely serious safety incident that points to a real danger to the connecting tunnels, states the companies’ brief.     

Israel Railways has rejected these claims and the contractors’ diagnosis of the problem, saying the cracks found in the other tunnels are minor, not connected to water pressure, and some were even caused by seemingly faulty construction on the part of Shapir and Pizarotti. 

The solution proposed by Israel Railwaysis to drill holes into the concrete to allow the water to drain and reduce the pressure of the water. The railway company resolved to try this fix in four tunnels near the one that buckled. 

The contractors say the solution is inadequate, hence their demand to enforce the mandatary arbitration clause in their contract with Israel Railwats. They say Israel Railways agreed to arbitration but backtracked and assigned the tunnel repair to an outside contractor, even before arbitration. 

Shapir and Pizzarotti have asked the court not only to appoint an arbitrator but also to order Israel Railways not to carry out any actions that prevent future examination of the problem. 

Rejects claims

Israel Railways says it completely rejects the contractors’ claims and will respond to them in court. The railway company says it has its own serious claims against Shapir, who is a year behind schedule on the project. “It seems that in order to cover up its failures and the fines it has received, Shapir is trying, and not for the first time, to shirk its responsibility and cover up its failures by filing a lawsuit,” Israel Railways said.   

Israel Railways says that it does not object to arbitration but the issue at hand must be resolved through discussion, not legal moves by one of the parties. “As for replacing Shapir with a different contractor, this is a measure aimed at guaranteeing compliance with the schedule and the target date for completing the engineering work,” Israel Railways said.

The only parts of A1 that have been completed are the section between Tel Aviv and Modi’in and a spur to Latrun. A long series of administrative failures has caused the line’s opening to be postponed from 2008 to 2017. At the same time, cost estimates for the project have doubled over the years, from 3.2 billion shekels to 8.6 billion shekels (at 2013 prices).

The tender for Section C, for example, was published in 2006 before all the necessary permits were obtained and in the face of fierce public debate on several planning issues. In 2009, the State Comptroller charged in a harsh report that serious faults in planning the project had led to the long delays. As a result of the delays, the state was ordered to pay Shapir and Pizarotti  200 million shekels in compensation.

The Ramet construction company, which was to have built the railway terminal at the International Convention Center (Binyanei Ha’uma) at the entrance to Jerusalem, went bankrupt in 2009. 

In May, 2011, TheMarker uncovered a series of problems in the project, including the collapse of tunnels and the replacement of supervisors, that suggested there would be further delays.

In August 2013, it was revealed that part of the tunnel in Section C had been dug some 60 centimeters off-course, apparently due to incorrect data having been fed to the tunnel-boring machine. The same month, a senior supervisor died in a work accident on the site.