My Tunnel Exploration

By | October 29, 2013

Guatemala SinkholeI have a strange fascination with sink holes. It is the only topic I seem to post about on Google Plus. I admire the symmetry of a sink hole and its cylindrical hallway to doom. I love that a sink hole appearing in the middle of a street looks like a Photoshop. However, I understand that they are very serious and deadly phenomenons. In Florida a sink hole appeared under the bed of a man sleeping and was never heard from again. This is a terrifying thought and perhaps my curiosity with sink holes is what makes me interested in tunnels for transit systems.

Chunnel Side View

The entire construction of an underground tunnel intrigues me. The tunnel boring machines used to dig tunnels are mind-boggling. The ability to dig under a body of water, be it False Creek in Vancouver, the East Side Access bringing Long Island and New York together (YouTube video, Huffingtonpost) or the English Channel between England and France, is all amazing. The fact that the London Underground is older than the University of Alberta and that more complex transit systems have lines layered on top of each other excites me like a kid on Christmas.

During my weekend courses at NAIT a team member in our group mentioned they were an installation coordinator on the North LRT line in Edmonton. His previous work experience includes the Canada Line in Vancouver as well as lines in Montreal. After the North LRT line is finished he will return to Vancouver to work on a 13 KM extension. I confessed my tunnel obsession with him and he offered to take me in to North LRT construction area. Once I removed the shock from my face I immediately agreed to his offer.

The tunnel boring machines have been removed from the site but the tunnels are in various levels of completion and I was able to see completed tunnels that could see a train tomorrow, and others that required a lot more infrastructure in place before they could carry cars.

Did this experience live up to what I imagined it could be? Yes! I am a fan of symmetry and pairing that with underground construction the photographic opportunities alone were worth it, and being able to walk in an area that few will legally be allowed to explore was icing on the cake.

Almost as if this was an organized birthday present to myself I put on the safety boots purchased just for this occasion, strapped all the camera gear to me and went in to the tunnels. My tour started at the MacEwan station, walked under CN Tower and took the new LRT line until it met with the Churchill Station. Below are some of the photos from the trip, and others can be found in the Gallery here.

What impressed me most was how much work is required to put a tunnel together. It’s more than digging a hole and laying in a track, the infrastructure for communication, lighting, water all has to be considered before concrete is poured and the number of teams involved in such a project is staggering. The amount of material that is beneath the scenes is not something I could fully comprehend but seeing conduits, fire-proof access boxes and other important areas in the tunnel lead you to understanding there is a very complex system surrounding another complicated system.

My guide admitted to me that the North LRT line lacked the glamour of other lines and may come across as simple, but that doesn’t mean this line is without challenges. Case in point are the track switches at Churchill Station. This is where the Metro line will be coming in to Churchill Station, crossing over existing track and arriving at the platform. The original track had to be replaced to allow for the track switches, and the software to control the direction of the tracks is currently being tested.
Track Switch
Two lines, each with a north bound and south bound car, arriving at a single station may be small apples to larger city lines, but standing in front of the track and seeing how much has to happen in a small space to ensure a car gets to where it’s going is overwhelming. If you think of the logic required to control a traffic light and get frustrated when you are sitting still for longer than necessary. Now extrapolate that to managing the tracks that will control the meeting point of two LRT lines in to one.

Crumpled BlueprintsTo take a step back and apply a project manager view on this, I was most surprised that there is still room for error on tasks or that specifications can be interpreted differently. This isn’t to say they are wrong or faulty, just that this is far from the first underground transit line created and the best practices done by other teams elsewhere should set a standard for other projects to follow, but they seem to be more of a guideline and not a rule. What the North LRT line is doing is not unique but a simple line may have been made more complicated through the teams involved in the execution. The mentality that ‘my way is the best way’ goes beyond software development and debugging a faulty line of code or re-wiring electrical could likely have been avoided if more time was spent in the beginning of the project.

I am not about to switch my careers and begin working on tunnel construction but the variety of jobs and tasks required to complete a line are more than team of blunt instruments digging a hole. There is a lot of finish work that ties it all together and it was a great opportunity to see behind the curtain. First and foremost I was a curious bystander and secondly I was taking a work perspective on this, picturing network diagrams of how work can be organized and trying to plan the project in my head.

This was a fantastic opportunity and I will be looking out the window of the LRT a little more fondly now knowing a bit about what is beyond the rail car.

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