I didn’t grow up dreaming of working in construction. In fact, even during my A-Levels, I had no firm idea of where I wanted to go. What I did know was that I did not want to spend the foreseeable future sat at a desk, being what I really dreaded: bored.
The desire to exercise my mental and physical faculties and to be constantly challenged drew me to the construction industry. What made up my mind was knowing that I could get to the end of each day, or month, or even year, and see some measurable, tangible result from the efforts of myself and the team around me. Ending up in Civil Engineering specifically was a stroke of sheer good fortune – one I am thankful for because it brought me to Crossrail.
In January 2014, I started as an Apprentice Site Engineer on the C405 Paddington Station project with next to no knowledge of the construction industry or engineering, having never set foot on a construction site before. Paddington Station is certainly no bad place to start. I think ‘eye opener’ is the appropriate cliché.
Spending every day surrounded by more experienced people, you learn an extraordinary amount, but it’s easy to forget just how much, because everyone around you continues to know far more. One of the nicest parts of an apprenticeship on such a major project is explaining to people outside of the world we occupy, what we’re actually doing, because it reminds me of just how much understanding I’ve actually gained in the past eighteen months.
The project at Paddington is to build the new section of the underground station to serve the Crossrail line. The station consists of a 262m long, 23m wide and 30m deep box, constructed top down. I have been fortunate enough to be involved on multiple different areas of the project. The first of these was the construction of the concourse slab. It was poured in fifteen sections, each one comprising of around 500m3 of concrete, with almost 2000 tonnes of steel reinforcement fixed in all.
One of the Site Engineer’s main tasks was checking and tracking the rebar as it went in, which involved a mammoth spreadsheet that I became almost possessive over and as a consequence am now irrationally proud of. There are also 250 pre-cast concrete units in the soffit which will be a major architectural feature in the completed station. I had the responsibility of checking these for cracks or surface defects. It will be such a prominent part of Paddington once open to the public, that I thoroughly enjoyed getting a chance to be involved with, knowing how many thousands (or potentially millions) of people seeing the results of our efforts was one of the things that drew me to construction from the off.
Since this initial time on the project, I think I have come to prefer being involved with things that are never seen once completed. There is a vastly underestimated amount of work that goes into building something - I definitely did not fully appreciate just how much when I first started (I’m still not sure I do.) I’m currently part of the team undertaking works on the main plunge column piles through the centre of the station box. This is a section that takes a huge volume of effort from multiple parties, but is then instantly hidden by follow-on trades. Once excavation has exposed the pile, we then removing some areas of concrete to the appropriate level in order to fully comply with the specification, take samples and inspect the surface for the presence of other types of material, such as sand pockets. After that, all that remains (if it was ever that simple) is to pour the pile head to design level, backfill any localised excavation and collate and review all the technical reports of our findings.
Aspects of my role include marking cores, setting out localised excavations, marking the required breakdown level, inspecting the pile head and relaying the programme. Though, fundamentally my role is to tie the different people working on the piles together, in order to ensure each knows what is required of them and when. Sometimes, it can be a logistical challenge to have works completed, including co-ordinating the inspections (a minimum of seven per pile) and tests (at least three) which need to take place, without holding up the handover of the area to the sub-contractor building the base slab. It’s a section that can be in equal parts frustrating and rewarding.
There are many things that can go against us but, when we have a successful day, it’s a cause for celebration. I’ve been known to get what could be described as unnecessarily excited, but we have usually had to battle through a myriad of problems to get there, so I (personally) think it’s warranted. We have now completed forty pile repairs and have just eleven left to go, so we’ve managed to get into our stride. It’s great to be part of a team that operates as a (relatively) well-oiled machine, chipping away at what once seemed like an insurmountable task.
It’s hard to imagine a point in time when I will be able to walk through Paddington station without feeling a sense of pride and achievement, because, despite being a very small cog in an enormous wheel, I have been afforded the chance to be a part of an experience which would usually be a once in a lifetime opportunity. I just hope that, with Crossrail Paddington as the first bullet point on my CV, I might be lucky enough to have something of this magnitude roll my way again someday.
Find out more about the construction of the new Paddington Station.
Discover more about the Crossrail Apprenticeship Programme.