Nobody was more pleasantly surprised than me to learn that more men (54%) than female (46%) read my blog, according to Google analytics. After years of working as a handbag designer in 99.9% female populated offices, it came as something of a relief. So this week’s post is unintentionally, traditionally one for the boys, but I also suspect there are quite a few ladies out there, who like me are trains and tunnel enthusiasts.
I’d been begging my friend Lee Harman (an engineer on the Paddington Crossrail site) for some time to give me a tour of ‘The Box’ as it is locally known. “It’s not really called The Box is it, surely there must be a more technical term?”
“Yes, The Box, the concourse/platform at Paddington which the Crossrail tunnel will come into and passengers will alight and board the trains from. I laugh, trying to keep up wearing PPE clothing - not designed for a 5ft 1” girl. Blimey it’s heavy, I think to myself, dragging my steel capped boots round Eastbourne Terrace to the site. In the first welcome spring sun, everyone is drinking coffees and dashing for trains, blissfully unaware of the Crossrail team working round the clock below ground level.
We have a briefing where we discuss safety and exit strategies and then start making our way down to what feels like the earth’s core. Closely passing the grey Victorian mouldings of the Grade I listed railway station. A Great Dame of a building I’m fond of admiring, nowhere evokes the adventure of a train journey and arriving in the great Metropolis better. I’m sure the original architects would thoroughly approve of this next chapter in travel. Especially one that will reduce the 1 hour minimum, the time you have to factor in to get to most places in London, unless you live centrally.
For those of you (like me) who have no idea of the order that a construction projects like this happens in, I shall explain in layman’s terms. The earth is tunnelled away and as the machine bores through, the curved slabs are cemented in to create the tunnel. The box is then constructed at ground level, excavating down below until the tunnel is reached and the section that runs through The Box can be removed. In this case, the tunnels themselves which meet the Box either side are assigned to a different contractor and a ‘no go’ territory for Lee and the Skanska team.
Don’t you have it all figured out at design stage? I ask naively, looking at all the small scale trials on site, testing methods of installing aspects of the build. Lee explains there are lots of moments where they only get one chance at getting it right as he points to the perfection of a pillar, seamlessly cast from smooth concrete. His enthusiasm for the job is infectious, but it comes with a weight of responsibility. “You do have to be a certain type of person to do this job, if you worried too much about every possible set back, you would never get anything done. Everyone on this team works together professionally to get things done.”
For many visitors flying in from Heathrow, the Crossrail station at Paddington will be the first taste of what London has to offer. It must be a huge undertaking to try and match the grand traditions of the old station, in a contemporary way which suits London’s future needs. My only request would be a display cabinet of all the objects found on Crossrail sites, the wooden cobbles, bottles, ceramics, bones, but you can’t stop progress and save everything.
Phase 1 of Crossrail will open in 2018. Find out how quickly you’re going to be able to whizz across London here.