x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

South Korea's Samsung C&T digs deep into expertise for Qatar metro project

Arabian Gulf countries look at subway systems elsewhere and want similarly efficient public transport. Welcome to the science that makes it all possible.

A worker in one of Samsung C&T's tunnel-boring machine being used for the 919 section of Seoul Metro's Line 9 extension. Seong Joon Cho for The National
A worker in one of Samsung C&T's tunnel-boring machine being used for the 919 section of Seoul Metro's Line 9 extension. Seong Joon Cho for The National

SEOUL // Ohyoung Sun disappears 16 metres underground twice a day - once in the morning and once at lunch - to check on the progress of his tunnel, section 919 of the Seoul Metro's Line 9 on the eastern edge of town.

Mr Sun, a project manager for Korea's Samsung C&T, is an underground mass transport specialist, starting 24 years ago when he trained on the Tokyo subway and more recently in Seoul and Singapore. Next week he moves to Doha to work on two stations there; he will stay, alone without his wife and child, for three to five years.

Metros in the Arabian Gulf, both a practical response to traffic and a flashy assertion of modernity, made their first appearance in 2009 in Dubai. Since then, the Arab Spring has opened up a pinata of public spending, including metro plans across the region. Mr Sun and more men like him are coming to build them.

Abu Dhabi is launching a tender for a Dh7 billion metro project this year, starting with a 17-station line connecting Zayed Sports City to the port. Two other lines, including a 15-kilometre link from Marina Mall to Reem Island and a 13km link from Saadiyat Island to the Al Wahda bus station, are also set to be running in the next three to four years.

Dubai also plans a Dh5bn connection from its Jebel Ali station to Al Maktoum International Airport in time for Expo 2020, should it win its bid. Samsung C&T, one of two engineering and construction arms of the Korean conglomerate Samsung, is preparing proposals for the UAE projects as well as for Jeddah, Mecca and Riyadh.

There is also an upcoming bidding round in Doha for additional construction packages. "Maybe we'll get one or two more," said Mr Sun.

Helmet on, he set out from his office for a traffic median, blocked off for the above-ground section of his construction zone. Steel stairs wind underground to a lair worthy of Spider-Man's sewer-loving foe The Lizard: dripping wet, noisy with the work of 40 silent men (half of them Korean, half-Thai) and filled with the acrid scent of fuel and freshly ground dirt. A tinny rendition of Beethoven's Fur Elise warns employees when equipment is being lowered from above. It seems to always be playing.

Mr Sun reaches the end of the stairs and finds the tracks, already laid in preparation for the extension of Seoul's newest subway line for commuters from the domestic airport to Yeouido, the modern financial centre. This US$187 million extension will increase Line 9's span by another 1.5 km.

A conveyor belt filled with grey, soggy dirt whirs on a track, leading Mr Sun to his most expensive tool: the tunnel-boring machine.

Tunnelling is an art, and as in any art there are competing philosophies. One is to blow things up, a quick and cheap way to make a subway but one that could get the neighbours complaining. The other, Mr. Sun's preferred, is to use a machine to chew through dirt and spit it out, like an earthworm.

One of the machines, which are made in Japan and Eurppe, can cost 10 billion Korean won (Dh326.6 million), and each must to be custom-made or modified to suit the size of each tunnel (8 metres here) and type of dirt. Samsung C&T has about 10 of then.

Tunnelling in Doha, where the ground is sandy rather than soft rock and gravel, will likely be easier.

The 4bn riyal (Dh4.03bn) package, part of a massive metro to serve arrivals for the Fifa World Cup, is for stations at Education City and Msheireb, a green property development downtown. Samsung C&T will build it with the Spanish construction firm OHL and the local Qatar Building Company, and the budget dwarfs that of the Seoul extension by 10 times.

"It's a symbolic station for Qatar, so a different design and a different scale," said Mr Sun. He had not started packing.