Leviathans that lurk in London’s labyrinths

Under the capital, huge mechanical drills are digging rail tunnels that recapture the spirit of the most ambitious Victorian engineers

Features Transport
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.

At the bottom of the shaft, the tunnels open. The scale is astonishing. The familiar tunnels of the Tube look like narrow rabbit warrens in comparison. It is a Jules Verne landscape. Even unfinished, even in the dim light of the industrial lamps and with dust and dirt collecting thickly under your collar and hard hat, the tunnels are spectacular. And they are getting bigger.Ada, Phyllis and their sisters could only do so much. Now that they have done the heavy work, a scavenger party of diggers, drillers, forklifts and loaders is widening the tunnels. There are 20 or more of them down here, some dormant and covered in  thick dust, others crashing and crunching into the concrete casing left behind by the TBMs. They were once JCB yellow, but anything left down here takes on the dry colour of the dirt and dust.

I watch as one of these yellow raptors, with a long mechanical arm ending in a serrated claw, gouges chunks out of the tunnel, widening it by several metres. Even with earplugs it is deafening. The roar of the plastic air vents, bloated anacondas that pump dusty air from tunnel to surface, makes the shouted instructions of my guides redundant. The army of engineers in orange boiler suits — and whatever the sex of the boring machines, their operatives are all men — have a language of hand gestures, signalled through thick gauntlets.

Coming up for air, stepping out onto Charterhouse Street into bright sunshine and the lunchtime rush, is dizzying. Do the office workers know, as they race for a sandwich, that the earth is being stolen from beneath them?

The old Farringdon station, dwarfed by the blue hoardings, is still open and the Metropolitan Line takes me home to Paddington in half an hour. It will be eight minutes on Crossrail.

I have a particular interest in this behemoth project, as Crossrail runs directly beneath my street. Shortly after I moved in, a man in a blue Crossrail jacket came to my flat with a spirit level and a tape measure to make a record of every crack in the plaster — down to the tiniest hairlines inside the airing cupboard. If the building falls down, no one can accuse Crossrail of not exercising due diligence. In the nearly four years I have lived here, they have dug up the road three times. The most recent round started this past summer. The drills sound an alarm at eight o’clock in the morning and go on until six. I am writing this in my bedroom at the back, headphones clamped over my ears. Whatever my objections to the immediate noise and disruption, I am awestruck by the ambition of this deepest of London’s railway lines. It is exciting to have one’s foundations shaken. If I had lived on Sussex Gardens in 1863, in what would have then been a spanking new house, not the crack-prone terrace broken into flats that it is now, I would have felt a similar thrill.

That was the year that the first London Underground line opened, running from Paddington in the West to Farringdon in the East. It had been a long time in the digging. The idea of an underground railway to reduce the congestion of carts, carriages, cattle and hawkers on the roads had been discussed by engineers since the 1830s. It was given new impetus in 1851 when Charles Pearson, solicitor to the City Corporation, proposed a 100-foot-wide tunnel beneath the city laid with eight sets of tracks. Pearson was an indefatigable campaigner for new working-class suburbs outside the city, replacing the old slums and rookeries and connected to the centre by railways. He joined forces with the Bayswater, Paddington and Holborn Bridge Railway Company, which proposed an underground line connecting the western suburbs in Bayswater with the City. The tracks would run from Paddington Station, opened in 1838, to Farringdon.

Permission for the scheme was granted in 1854, but not so much as a clod of earth had been excavated when the Crimean War brought the company close to bankruptcy. The unflagging Pearson, celebrated by his biographer for his “gadfly” energy, lobbied the City Corporation and successfully persuaded it to subscribe to shares worth £200,000.

Digging, carried out by navvies working in shifts, began in 1859, overseen by the engineer John Fowler, who would go on to build the Forth Bridge, west of Edinburgh. The new Metropolitan Line ran along what are now the Marylebone and Euston Roads, with a turn to the south-east beside Farringdon Road.

The line had its grand ceremonial opening on January 9, 1863. Six hundred of the great and the good assembled at Paddington and the party proceeded in two trains to Farringdon for an “elegant dejeuner”, as The Times put it. It was served on the station platform, which had been draped for the occasion in scarlet and white flags and banners. There were toasts and speeches. The chairman called on Robert Lowe MP to give a rousing address.

“The traffic of London,” Lowe began, “has long been a reproach of the most civilised nation of the world, and the opprobrium of the age. Dr Johnson used to say that if you wanted to see the full tide of human life, you must go to Charing Cross, but Dr Johnson would have to raise his estimation of the full tide, or rather of the close jam of the full tide of human life, many hundred per cent before he could arrive at the state which the traffic of London has now reached.” This congestion, he argued, has become a “growing evil”.

He praised the efforts of the Metropolitan Railway Company in almost religious terms: the engineers were latter-day saints shedding light on infernal darkness: “The company has had to find its way though obstacles which those only can truly appreciate who have had to contend with them. They had to make their way through gas-pipes and water-pipes and sewers, and that greatest of all obstacles, that modern dragon which Mr Fowler, the modern St George, has four times vanquished — the Fleet Ditch.” (The River Fleet, which once ran though Farringdon, has been as much a dragon to today’s Crossrail engineers as it was to Fowler and his navvies.) “The line has had to worm its way through a complicated and intricate labyrinth under difficulties almost insuperable,” continued Mr Lowe. “Everyone who observed carefully today must have seen how admirably this difficulty had been dealt with and overcome — how, even in this dull and dismal day, darkness was penetrated by the light of heaven.”

There were cheers and a bumper was drunk to the success of the Metropolitan Railway. The Times pronounced it “a great success”.

The following day the line opened to the public. More than 50,000 people turned up; half of them had to be turned away. The first trains left the platforms at 6am “in order to accommodate workmen,” reported the Guardian, “and there was a goodly muster of that class of the public.”

From 8am, every station was crowded with passengers and the carriages were filled to overflowing. “The crowds were immense, and the constant cry, as the trains arrived, of ‘No Room’, appeared to have a very depressing effect upon those assembled.” It was, the paper reported with relish, like “the crush at the doors of a theatre on the first night of a pantomime”.

The Guardian commented favourably on the gas lamps in every carriage. It was possible, the paper said, to read a newspaper when the trains stopped at a platform, but in motion the draught caused the lamps to flicker so as to make it impossible.

The journey from Paddington to Farringdon took 33 minutres, including stoppages, but the paper reported that much delay was caused by the crowds and the running about of officials and that on ordinary days there would be less fuss and delay.

The only person who was missing from the crush was Charles Pearson, the energetic gadfly who had brought about the scheme; he had died just four months before. How he would have thrilled to the tunnels being bored through the city today, almost twice as wide as those of his own age, and to the great trophy heads of the tunnel boring machines left buried in their catacombs beneath the city.

When the new line opens in 2018 — when the workmen outside my window have finally packed away their drill-heads — I will be first in the crush to travel on the new line from Paddington to Farringdon and to drink a bumper to the extraordinary ambition of Charles Pearson and his descendants.