Leviathans that lurk in London’s labyrinths
A cutterhead being installed at Westbourne Park in 2012. The Tunnel Boring Machines will excavate the Crossrail tunnels before digging their own graves beneath London. (photo: Crossrail)
There are dinosaurs buried beneath the streets of the capital, eight great mechanical monsters sunk into London's clay.Since May 2012, these triceratops have been driving caverns through London's foundations. They are formidable beasts, 150 feet long and weighing 1,000 tons. Their rhino-nosed cutter-heads can bore through concrete and steel.
Four have advanced from the West and four from the East. These giants are excavating 26 miles of tunnels deep beneath the city, below cellars and basements, sewers and pipelines, below even the deepest Underground stations. They are the industrial handmaidens of the biggest infrastructure project in Europe: Crossrail, the £14.8 billion, 73-mile-long railway line connecting Maidenhead to the west of London to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the distant East.
And they are definitely maidens. Each of the Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs) has been given a woman's name: Ada and Phyllis, Elizabeth and Victoria, Mary and Sophia, Jessica and Ellie. "We gave them women's names," explains Nisrine Chartouny, the project manager at the Farringdon site, "because they are very reliable." They may be massive in size, but they are characterised by delicacy and precision, accurate down to the last millimetre. At Tottenham Court Road, one of the stops on Crossrail's route, the tunnels come within 650mm of the tunnel edge of the Underground's Northern Line and 300mm of the escalator tunnels. As the TBMs churned the earth, it was possible for commuters, if they knew to listen for it, to hear the industrial whirr and clatter of the drills.
So monumental are these creatures that when they finish their journeys, they remain buried. Parts of their juggernaut-bodies can be dismantled, but the drills mounted on their heads are left behind in burial chambers at right angles to the tunnels they have excavated.
Farringdon is the heart of the scheme — it is here that the east and west tunnels will meet in the new year. Every hour 24 Crossrail trains will pass through Farringdon — and 140 further trains on Thameslink and London Underground lines. It is predicted that 150,000 people will use Farringdon station every day.
It is hard to imagine it now. The "station" is a gaping wound in the city map. Behind blue hoardings a mineshaft the size of a football pitch has been sunk through the city. Scaffolding, gantries and hundreds of narrow metal steps take you down one side of the site, 33 metres down, to the level of what if all goes to plan will in 2018 be the platform.
As you descend, crater-sized buckets of earth and rubble travel the other way, hoisted by cranes to the surface to be loaded onto lorries and driven out of the city. A bird sanctuary has been built at Wallasea in Essex with all the muck that has been taken out.
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