Growing up my Dad had worked as a welder on the Channel Tunnel Project and it had been his conversations and memories which inspired me to undertake my degree in engineering. As I neared the end of my degree in BEng Mining Engineering in May 2013, an opportunity arose to interview for a Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) and Control Room Engineer on Crossrail’s East London C305 project. I was incredibly excited and determined to join the Dragados Sisk Joint Venture.
I work 12 hours per day - 7 days on and 3 or 4 days off pattern, so there’s no time to glam up before work. On nights I’ll get up at 4pm, go for a quick run, shower, sort some food out for the night and walk into work arriving for about 6.45pm ready for a de-brief with the days shift engineers. On days it’s just the other way around. Usually there are two or three engineers per shift and we take it in turns to work either in the control room or on the machine.
Eating healthy and keeping your fitness up is important in the role, as working on the machine can be physically exhausting; climbing up and down the ladders in the front of the TBM to determine the angle of the next pre-cast concrete ring to build and walking up and down the 150m long machine checking that everyone is happy.
The role as a TBM Engineer mainly involves selecting the orientation of the rings in order to follow where the driver has already pushed the machine, in accordance to the tunnel design, then filling out the associated paperwork. However a day on the machine is never tedious as there are briefings to be given, problems to be sourced and solved, paperwork to be completed and banter to be had.
In comparison, a day in the office can be far more relaxed. All the data from the TBMs, cross passage piezometers (water levels) and gas monitoring system is collated in the control room. I monitor the data and take necessary action if there is something I am not happy with or an alarm sounds. I also have control of the surface conveyor system, used to transport all the material which the TBM excavates, from the TBM underground to the muck pit or barges on surface. The rest of the day is spent liaising on the phone with various operatives, my tunnel agent who is in charge of monitoring the running tunnels and office management, writing various briefings or updating and analysing data. A ‘quiet day in the office’ only occurs once in a blue moon.
By far one of the most enjoyable parts of my job is meeting and working alongside the tunnel teams. Everyone has a story to tell whether it is from 40 years of experience working in tunnelling or a newbie like me.
When I first started the role I was a little daunted by the responsibility of the job and the lack of direct knowledge I had regarding the machine, however now entering my fourteenth month on the project I feel completely at home. I am incredibly proud of the team around me, both in the office and underground.
Tunnelling is like one giant factory underground - if any component of it goes down progress ceases, so it is vital that the whole team works together to support, train and educate each other in order to obtain the best possible gang.
One of my proudest moments on the project to date has to be the safe and successful completion of tunnelling for my tunnelling machine – Jessica.
Following the completion of her first drive in February 2014, she was dismantled underground, lifted out of the huge shaft at Stepney Green and transported by road back to our eastern tunnels launch site in Limmo Peninsula. From here, she was lowered 40 metres below ground and re-assembled before being put back to work to drive the short tunnel eastwards between Limmo Peninsula and Victoria Dock Portal.
TBM Jessica broke through in August and it was her final Crossrail voyage. It is a little emotional as I have seen her both launched and breakthrough from Pudding Mill Lane to Stepney Green and now Limmo to Victoria Dock Portal. It is the realisation that with over 80% tunnelling completed it is nearly time to move on to pastures new.
However I am ready for a little change and from working on this project I have realised that I would like to gain a better understanding of the mechanics behind ground control and perhaps a 9 till 5 job would be a welcome change from the 12hr shift day.
That said, with tunnelling in my blood and my first major project under my belt I am sure I will be back, especially with potentially so many major tunnelling projects in the line-up; Thames Tideway, Crossrail 2, Hinkley Point, just to name a few in the UK.
Find out more about Crossrail's tunnelling marathon.