Paul Blanchard interview

6th August 2019


Paul is a Chartered Geologist and highly experienced tunnelling engineer with a career spanning more than 30 years. He has led project and design teams constructing large-scale, iconic infrastructure projects worldwide including Australia, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Nepal, Asia and the Middle East.

Tell me about your background.

I obtained my Master of Science back home in the UK and since graduating I’ve been driven by travel, change and cultural exchange. I’m always on the look-out for large underground construction delivery projects as the experience you gain on a very large project is unique. When you work overseas in certain countries – you’re given a lot of responsibility as they rely on international accreditation.

I’ve had the opportunity to work on some of the largest and most unique projects in the world; not only unique in nature but unique in location. The underground petroleum caverns and tunnels in Saudi Arabia which involved storing petroleum as a hedge against wars and inflation dwarfs everything I’ve ever done since. I’ve also worked on high speed rail in Taiwan and China; hydro power in Malaysia; a water transfer project in the Himalayas; and the oil fields in Libya.

Working in so many countries I’ve discovered that people often have a different philosophical outlook on life – sometimes a fatalistic attitude. Safety can be challenge due to differences in religion, culture and education. If people are struggling to survive then safety really isn’t their priority.

Another challenge with project delivery is when you have a design and specification to build in a certain country, but the specification hasn’t been written with that country in mind.  Working out what is possible and what isn’t possible in the current environment is crucial to a projects’ success.

My experience is not only on the design side but also construction, supervision and delivery. In the beginning I was primarily involved in tunnelling, but as I gained more experience, I’ve moved into project management and been involved in things like social and gender issues on remote projects. These issues are really important when creating a team that works well together and delivers benefits to the entire community.

Are there any qualifications or types of experience that have significantly helped you in your role on WestConnex?

As the Senior Project Manager for tunnels, it helps that I have a background in earth sciences, but it’s not essential. More importantly, it’s my experience on big complicated projects in various countries that is my greatest strength. Westconnex is complicated and it is large but it’s not unsurmountable – it requires very good planning and a team of people with genuine pride in their work. I have gained an appreciation of what makes a project succeed and importantly, where projects stumble and run into trouble.

We work a lot with the community as people worry about the effect of the project upon property pricing. We have a very detailed design approach when tunnels get close to properties to ensure there is no ground movement. Once the project is finished, car numbers will be reduced and the through traffic that used to thunder past their houses will disappear. Communities need to see the benefit the project will bring to be supportive over the project delivery life.

What 3 things do you need to manage regarding risk when digging tunnels?

  1. Competencies of the people doing the work
  2. Good geotechnical information
  3. Quality of workmanship

These 3 things are paramount in managing risk as we are dealing with structures that support the ground with a design life of over 100 years.

Construction is a process; broken down into stages to deliver a finished tunnel. It’s all about the processes to check the quality of the work. We have drawings and specifications to tell us how it’s done, and we also rely on our experience. I use my previous experience every day and draw on lessons learnt on previous projects to focus on key items that we know could affect the tunnel. If corners are cut that’s when you run into problems. If the program slips a little – pressure is on the contractor to deliver.

As the Senior Project Manager on the WestConnex Rozelle Interchange Project, how do you manage an integrated team in such a high-risk environment?

We don’t see ourselves as separate cultures, we are ‘the team’. We have a lot of people in our team and focus on professionalism and working together towards a common goal.

Our processes are intertwined with the independent certifier who has the responsibility to ensure the design is fit-for-purpose and the construction of the works is fit-for-purpose. We are another layer of the cake and work with the independent certifier and the contractor to try to progress the works – progress the design – collaboratively.
I believe that with collaboration you can get the best outcomes.

How do you work with the above ground teams to implement ground support and stability measures?

When we started on the project, the team hadn’t seen the contract so for the first 6 weeks we just read everything – contract, designs and specifications.

The design and drawings are pieces of the jigsaw – the design packages. We receive all the reports for particular aspects of work, review, take note and check the interfaces between tunnel and surface works; knowing the scope of works that affect the different areas of the surface and underground.

We focus on a consistent approach to break down the projects into the many parts. We know our areas of responsibilities. We know where our work joins. There might be a design for a drainage system to collect groundwater entering the tunnels that can then pumped out to a treatment plant. We know within the structure that there are things common to both surface and underground works eg. emergency lighting, emergency exits. Over the next year the design will come in stages until it gets to final design. Then we will move from construction design, to mechanical, to electrical, ventilation, fire, testing and commissioning. We will progressively work together – commissioning the entire project to make sure it works.

I’ve had the opportunity to work on some of the largest and most unique projects in the world; not only unique in nature but unique in location. ”
Paul Blanchard, Senior Project Manager, HKA