Key Contractors

Tunnelling segment provides opportunities across sectors

The tunnelling industry in India is served by both domestic and foreign players. Most of the contractors have a presence in all key tunnelling segments – hydropower, railways, metro rail, roads and highways, as well as irrigation, water and sewerage. Some contractors, however,  are present only in specific sectors. In the tunnelling segment, the joint venture (JV) model has been the most commonly used method of executing projects. Some of the top contractors across sectors are the Hindustan Construction Company (HCC), Jaiprakash Associates Limited, Patel Engineering Limited, Larsen & Toubro (L&T) and IRCON International Limited.

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Contractors across different sectors

In India, the construction of tunnels is primarily undertaken by domestic contractors with very few foreign players present in the segment. However, of late, some foreign players like Strabag and SEW Infrastructure Limited have entered the tunnelling segment in the road and highway, irrigation, water and sewerage sectors by forming JVs with large domestic companies. In the metro rail sector too, Indian contractors have undertaken tunnelling works by forming JVs with foreign players.

For railways, both in terms of number and length of tunnels, the L&T-Afcons Infrastructure JV dominates the sector. Around 92 tunnels of over 83.6 km length have been constructed by the company. The consortium of Aecom, Unity Infra, HCC and Coastal Projects Limited is the next largest player. Some of the other key players in railway tunnelling are IRCON International, SSNR Projects Private Limited, Continental Construction Corporation Limited, SEW Infrastructure Limited and ABCI Infrastructures Private Limited.

Besides railways, L&T has also been actively undertaking metro tunnelling works, either individually or by forming JVs with other domestic or foreign players. In terms of length, the L&T-SUCG Infrastructure JV dominates the metro tunnelling segment with tunnels of 36.27 km total length.  One of the biggest metro rail tunnel construction contracts for the Delhi Metro Phase III – Janakpuri West to Botanical Garden – is also being undertaken by L&T. The tunnel,

spanning a length of 23.8 km, is expected to be completed by December 2016. Other dominant players in the sector are J. Kumar Infraprojects, ITD Cementation, the Afcons-Transtonnelstroy JV, Soma Enterprise, Pratibha Industries Limited, Continental Holdings Corporation (China) and OJSC Mosmetrostroy (Russia).

The road and highway tunnelling segment is dominated by IL&FS Transportation Networks Limited (ITNL). The company’s current portfolio includes six tunnels, five in the Kiratpur (Punjab)-Ner Chowk (Himachal Pradesh) section four-laning project and one main tunnel for the Chenani-Nashri project on the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway. However, in terms of length of tunnels, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) dominates the segment, with two tunnels spanning over 25.4 km. The BRO has been actively undertaking the development of strategic roads in the northern and north-eastern regions of the country, such as the Shinkun La pass tunnel and the Baralacha La tunnel projects.

Another major domestic player, HCC Limited dominates the hydropower, irrigation and water and sewerage sectors, both in terms of the number and length of tunnels. The company has undertaken the construction of 97 hydro tunnels comprising a total length of 186 km. In the irrigation and water and sewerage sectors HCC’s current portfolio comprises 16 tunnels of 72 km total length. Some of the other players present in these sectors are Patel Engineering, Gammon India Limited and Jaiprakash Associates.

Key issues and challenges

The geological surprises that come after project construction has started are one of the biggest challenges being faced by contractors. Reliability of the predicted geology, therefore, plays an important role in the success of a project. Inadequate geological investigations could result in delays and cost overruns. For instance, during the construction of the Teesta V project, undertaken by Gammon India, it was observed that the constant presence of moisture turned a class 3 rock strata into a class 4 one, resulting in serious consequences.

Another major challenge faced by contractors is the delays in project implementation which translates into cost overruns. The delays are usually due to issues such as land acquisition, financial closure, clearances from various ministries and lack of coordination between the parties involved in the project.

Tunnel design can also pose a problem for contractors, as the designs drawn up during the detailed project report stage or as part of feasibility studies are sometimes difficult to implement during construction.

Ensuring the safety of workers during construction is another challenge faced by tunnel contractors. Since most tunnels are built in difficult terrain, there is a serious risk to the lives of workers. For instance, during the construction of the Kirtapur tunnel, two workers were trapped for over 200 hours after the tunnel collapsed.  Moreover, construction workers are at a greater risk of developing certain health disorders as compared to those in a number of other industries.


The current project pipeline in the tunnel construction segment presents a huge opportunity for contractors. According to India Infrastructure Research, the maximum opportunities will be in the hydropower sector, followed by the metro rail and road and highway sectors.

However, to fully exploit the opportunities available, contractors need to be innovative in terms of tunnel design, based on geographic requirements. Measures also need to be taken to minimise the risks posed by natural disasters, which cannot be accurately predicted. In addition, contractors also need to collaborate with local people to deal with issues related to land acquisition, resettlement and rehabilitation.


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