LONDON Jan 16 Bomb disposal experts,
archaeologists, tunnellers and eight very special machines with
names like Phyllis, Ada and Elizabeth help make up the army
working underground to build a new underground railway cutting
through historic London.
Crossrail, a 15 billion pound ($25 billion) railway link
connecting east and west London and Europe's largest
infrastructure project, will open in four years' time and is now
half complete, on budget and on schedule.
The new railway across London will be the realisation of a
plan first mooted in the 1880s to connect the docks in the east
of the city to Paddington in the west.
Crossrail however will go further, linking Heathrow airport
and the commuter strongholds of Maidenhead to the west with
Shenfield, on the outskirts of Brentwood in Essex, to the east.
Leading the charge underground are the eight giant
tunnelling machines, measuring longer than a football pitch and
just under twice as tall as a double decker bus, and in the
mining industry's superstitious tradition, all given female
"When one comes crashing through the wall in front of you,
it's a pretty special sight," said construction manager Will
Jobling, 31, as he recalled Elizabeth's latest achievement under
Stepney Green in east London.
Elizabeth and her sister tunnelling machine Victoria, were
named after Britain's Queen Elizabeth and her
great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria, while Phyllis is named
after Phyllis Pearsall who created the first London A-Z map, and
Ada after Ada Lovelace, one of the earliest computer scientists.
Two tunnelling machines under the Olympic park, Jessica and
Ellie, pay homage to two of Britain's stars from the 2012 games,
Jessica Ennis-Hill and Ellie Simmonds.
Tunnellers and workers gather to watch, celebrate and record
on their mobile phones the moment when a tunnelling machine
breaks through a temporary concrete plug, marking the completion
of a section.
Of the 42 km of new tunnels, over two-thirds have now been
dug, but Crossrail's chairman Terry Morgan said substantial
engineering challenges still remain to complete what he sees as
a project of unprecedented scale and complexity.
"We've looked at some of the big investments that have been
made in China, but nobody's tried to do what we've been doing
which is to build a new railway under a really old, global city
like London," he said.
For Morgan, a former managing director at bluechip defence
firm BAE Systems, only the scale of London's Olympic
Park compares, but not really: "we're twice as big as that and
it's more intrusive".
Prime Minister David Cameron made his third visit to
Crossrail on Thursday while delegations from the Middle East,
the Far East, the U.S, Russia and Scandinavia have all come to
see how London is doing it.
Crossrail is part of a new-found momentum for infrastructure
projects, said Morgan, following Heathrow's terminal five,
opened in 2008, the Olympic Park, and proposals for a new north
to south high speed railway (HS2) line in Britain.
"It's a growing reputation that the UK is now building," he
said, adding that Crossrail's on-budget, on-time progress could
help smooth the passage for the HS2 project, which has been the
subject of angry protests.
Recent estimates point to Crossrail, which is primarily
funded by the public sector, adding more than the forecast 42
billion pounds to Britain's GDP, said Morgan.
Sweden's Skanska and British firms Balfour Beatty
, Costain, Morgan Sindall and Laing
O'Rourke are all involved in the project on which 10,000 people
Digging the tunnels, which at their deepest are 48 metres
below the surface and weave above and below the routes travelled
by London's crowded tube trains, is shedding new light on the
capital's two thousand year history.
Since work started in 2009, construction workers have
uncovered 20 Roman skulls which possibly date back to the time
of a revolt led by Queen Boudicca against the Roman occupation
of Britain in the 1st Century.
A graveyard which might hold the remains of some 50,000
people killed by the "Black Death" plague more than 650 years
ago has also been found and work will start on excavating 3,000
skeletons from another burial ground next year.
After the waste mud has been dug out and sifted for relics
and artefacts, it is moved out of the capital at the rate of
four trainloads a day.
It is then taken east by rail and lifted onto ships before
being transported to Wallasea Island in the Thames Estuary.
The project is not solely based on digging new tunnels.
As it snakes its way east under the Docklands, where the
Thames widens and the London's shiny financial skyscrapers give
way to evidence of its industrial past, the Crossrail route will
return to use an old Victorian tunnel, the Connaught Tunnel,
which was bombed in 1940 during World War Two.
London's docklands, once full of steamships bringing tobacco
and meat from the Americas in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, were bombed heavily in the war.
So amongst those working for Crossrail are bomb-disposal
specialists probing the area for unexploded devices which might
have sunk into the soil in the 1940s.
In addition to the rail link proper, Crossrail will bequeath
to future generations its own relics. At least two of the
tunnelling machines will have working parts, oil and lubricants
removed and their shells left alongside the tunnels, deep under