City Rail Link: Auckland’s $4.4 billion underground railway being built to new Covid-19 playbook

A Covid-19-shaped storm bore down on Auckland’s $4.4 billion City Rail Link in 2020, but the mega-project responded well and made good progress.

Perhaps that has something to do with the mana of Dame Whina Cooper, whose name was chosen for the tunnel boring machine gearing up to start rumbling underground in April.

Dame Whina was a respected kuia who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of her people. Now the giant machine bearing her name is on a similar path to improve the lives of the people of Tāmaki Makaurau.

It’s a tradition that a tunnel boring machine cannot start work until it has a woman’s name. That’s to honour St Barbara, the patron saint of underground workers, and bring good luck. The boring machine for Auckland’s Waterview tunnel was named Alice.

In December, Dame Whina’s daughter, Hinerangi Puru Cooper, and her son, John Cooper, together with wider whanau, were present at the unveiling of the tunnel boring machine.

Sean Sweeney, the engineer overseeing the project, says people can abbreviate Dame Whina Cooper’s name if they like, but City Rail Link Ltd, the Crown entity charged with delivering the project, is at pains to respect the wishes of her whanau to use it in full.

The tunnel boring machine is a giant underground powerhouse. Built in China and assembled in Auckland, it is 130 metres long and will travel 32m a day to build two parallel tunnels, each 1.6km in length, under the heart of the city centre.

The machine is made up of two main components – a rotating cutter head at the front that bores through the earth, catches the spoil and places it on a conveyor built for removal; and a trail of gantries behind that includes a mechanism for fixing concrete panels.

It is scheduled to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and includes a break room and bathrooms for a crew of 12 staff.

Frenchman Francois Dudouit, project director for the Link Alliance consortium of seven companies building and fitting out the tunnels, believes the project is making good progress, based on his experience working on big infrastructure projects around the world.

“It is never easy to start such a big project,” said Dudouit, whose team have built a 51m portal for Dame Whina Cooper to get to work in April.

Excavations are well underway at the three main station sites, work has started on concrete structures and workers have broken the back of relocating underground utilities, a task described as like “untangling spaghetti”.

The City Rail Link is New Zealand’s largest construction job, currently employing about 600 people, with another 700 staff in design, engineering and consenting roles.

When completed (in 2024, all going well) the tunnels from Britomart to the new above-ground station at Mt Eden will be able to carry 54,000 commuters an hour to and from the CBD – twice the current capacity of the rail network.

The CRL will save 17 minutes on a commute from Henderson to Aotea – the new city centre station being built between Wellesley and Victoria streets, beneath Albert St.

A second underground station is being built under Karangahape Rd, with entrances in Mercury Lane and Beresford Square.

Sweeney, who has a PhD in construction economics and worked on major projects in Australia before taking on the CRL build in 2018, said the impacts of Covid-19 can be measured in weeks and tens of millions of dollars.

He credits the Link Alliance, the work of Dudouit and his team and the project’s partners, Auckland Council and the Government, who are sharing the costs and will be relieved Covid has yet to blow another big hole in the budget.

Sweeney said if it wasn’t for the council and the Government giving financial certainty when Covid hit, he could easily have received a call from Dudouit’s boss in Paris calling a crew of 100 skilled staff back home.

“It would have stopped the job dead,” Sweeney said.

The CRL came out of the Level 4 lockdown quicker than a lot of other big transport projects and within three days was up to full production, he says.

Although the pandemic continues to affect the programme, Sweeney is confident of delivering the project within its original parameters – opening in 2024 on budget.

Another lengthy Covid shutdown or major event could change that, and there’s the real possibility work could slow and costs rise if the Link Alliance cannot bring in highly skilled workers from overseas.

“It’s not a challenge with easy solutions. There are issues with finding a seat on a plane coming to New Zealand. One skilled worker tried seven times to get here from Paris, and there are issues getting across the border when they do arrive.

“If there wasn’t Covid I would say to Francois ‘get the right person here on Monday’ and you would be ringing up Paris and someone would be on the plane at the weekend because that’s how they operate. That is just not an option at the moment. It’s a different playbook,” Sweeney says.

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