I'd never visited the construction of a railway before and it was quite an amazing sight to see the Tunnel Boring Machines (TBM) and the level of activity taking place at the Westbourne Park site where over 150 people are working.
I was too busy taking gawping at the machines, taking photos & tweeting to take too much notice of the technical stuff. Also with protective gloves, a hard hat, goggles and slightly oversized protective shoes it was hard to take notes. So here's the low down of the progress from Crossrail themselves.
"The first Crossrail TBM is due to undergo testing ahead of the start of tunnelling. Work is well underway to re-assemble the second TBM that will launch from Royal Oak Portal in April.
"In March, the first TBM will be launched into one of the twin bores at Royal Oak Portal tunnelling east towards Farringdon. A second TBM will subsequently be launched in April through the second bore. At over 140 metres long and weighing around 1,000 tonnes the TBMs will travel 6.4km (4 miles) eastbound under London via Paddington, Bond Street and Tottenham Court Road before reaching Farringdon in 2013.
"This will be followed later this year by the launch of a further two TBMs from Limmo Peninsular in the Royal Docks that will travel a total of 8.3km (5 miles) towards Farringdon via Canary Wharf, Whitechapel and Liverpool Street.
Towards the end of 2012 another two TBMs will begin construction of the south-east section of the route, launching from Plumstead portal in the south-east and travelling a total of 2.6km to construct the Thames Tunnel. Two TBMs will also be used to create nearly 3km of twin-bore tunnels between Stepney Green and Pudding Mill Lane."
Apparently each TBM is like an underground factory and as they move forward, precast concrete segments are assembled into rings which line the tunnel behind the TBMs. "The excavated material is carried out on conveyer belts emerging at portals or shafts. Construction of the concrete segment factory for the western running tunnels between Royal Oak and Farringdon is now complete at Old Oak Common. The plant has begun manufacturing the 75,000 segments that will be required for the western tunnels."
A total of eight tunnel boring machines (TBMs) will construct 21km of new twin-bore tunnels (42km in total).
So much for the facts and figures. What was it like being there? Strange & fascinating. In the saftey briefing beforehand the Crossrail staff made sure we knew what hazards to look out for (not that we needed to be reminded as there were tons of warning signs everywhere).
They were also at pains to tell us how clean & tidy the construction site was. Now everyone knows the phrase "This place looks like a building site" implying that something is going to look a mess. But once we got to the site, I discovered they were correct. There was not one piece of litter. It almost looked like a film set of a building site.
Once I got used to walking around with a hard hat on, I could take in more of the atmosphere. The workers all seemed reasonably happy, and everyone I saw was actually working and not hanging around smoking fags or looking into holes or tunnels scratching their chins and shaking their heads saying "Mmmm not sure when that will be fixed", which is my general experience of constuction workers.
The guys who showed us round were also keen to point out that there hadn't been an accident since work had been started on the site. The site is up for a Considerate Construction Site Award which I reckon they stand a good chance of winning.
Health & safety was definitely rigourous and I did see a number of workers making some of these hand signs when cranes were moving enormous tubes, girders and other tunnelling equipment around the site.
Also John Bull from London Reconnections was on the visit with me and has a great post with a more photgraphs too. Although we weren't given a date as to when the first tunnelling would start, he said "I would place cold, hard, cash on the first TBM launching on the 17th of March."
I'd like to thank the team at Crossrail for inviting me along and also for their patience on the tour. It can't be easy herding a team of bloggers and photographers around a construction site.