I ’ve never been given a company car but I do drive something very special at work. I’m in charge of a “mole”, one of the giant tunnel-digging machines that are burrowing under London for the Crossrail project, linking the east and west of the city. Each mole is as long as 14 London buses and weighs 1,000 tons, yet is incredibly precise. It has to be to cut a path between the capital’s subterranean maze of sewers, Tube lines and underground rivers.
I’m 44 and have worked in tunnel digging since I was 16. My uncle ran a boring company and he gave me my first job, on a sewer project under Sheffield. In those days tunnelling was hard labour with shovels and picks. Now I sit at a control panel and it isn’t physically demanding at all. I’d rather pick up a rattlesnake than go back to the old way of working.
There have always been plenty of opportunities in my line but because it’s underground, people don’t always realise. I’ve helped dig miles of tunnels over the years, including the Channel tunnel rail link and a tunnel that carries the electrical power supplies underneath the Olympic Village in London.
For the Crossrail project I drive one of the latest tunnel-boring machines (TBMs). The one that I run is nicknamed Jessica and the power that drives it forward is equivalent to the force needed to lift more than 2,900 London taxis. Despite that, you barely feel anything when it is running. You do hear a hum from the cutter head, which revolves just two or three times per minute – but we are crawling forward at 100m a week.
I work 12-hour shifts, sitting in a control room about 10m back from the cutting head. As the machine goes forward, earth is pushed behind and carried back down the tunnel. Nearly all the soil from the 26 miles of tunnels will be reused, including 4.4 million tons of clay being shipped out to a new RSPB reserve in the Thames Estuary.
Jessica also carries the precast concrete segments of tunnel wall. These are pushed into place by a hydraulic ram, then cemented in with instant grout that takes a few minutes to set. The machines are so advanced that we even have our own kitchen area on board. If we had had these TBMs to build the Channel tunnel in the 1980s, it would have cost a fraction of the price.
My work gets me into some pretty unusual places. Last year I was digging 14m beneath the Blackwall Tunnel, knowing that people were driving their cars just above me. Now I’m on a two-mile stretch between Stepney Green and Pudding Mill Lane. We should finish this section by the end of 2014 – the first Crossrail trains are due to start running in 2019.
I spend most of my day looking at a bank of screens, getting all the information I need on progress and direction. It’s a far cry from when I started tunnelling 27 years ago. Then we used line of sight and a length of string for guidance. Jessica is laser-guided and I navigate via a GPS system. Despite her size, I can adjust the direction by millimetres with the push of a button.
You make friends on a project like this, so camaraderie within the team is only natural. We’ll have had three years together by the time the work is done, then I’m off to the next job – hopefully the new underground rail system in Doha for the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
I’m usually so tired at the end of my shift that all I want to do is call my family in Manchester and go to bed. We have an internal phone system underground but, obviously, there’s no mobile phone reception. However, one of the good things about working underground is that you never have to worry about the weather.
There is always a danger of hitting something but I’ve never had an accident. The planning has been meticulous – there’s very little margin for error under London. The tunnel will eventually pass 1.5m above the Tube’s Northern Line. In my job, it doesn’t get much closer than that.