Crossrail soon to start digging up old rail tunnel under Royal Docks

Linda Miller has just landed “the coolest job in town”—rebuilding an old Victorian railway tunnel under East London’s Royal Docks.

The 50-year-old ex-US Army combat helicopter pilot has been appointed Crossrail project manager for the Connaught Tunnel that will carry London’s new �17 billion ‘super tube’ between Custom House and Silvertown.

She can’t wait to move out of her ‘posh’ new suite of offices in Canary Wharf, she says, and move into a cramped wooden cabin on the reconstruction site at the mouth of the old Connaught Tunnel next to Prince Regent DLR station.

“This is going to be my life for the next four years,” the Arizona-born qualified civil engineer proudly tells reporters and photographers she is showing round her tunnel before work begins in July.

“I lobbied for this job when it came up. It’s such a cool job.

“Engineers told me it would be a nightmare—but really it’s a dream. It’s fantastic to remake something as beautiful as this old tunnel. It’s a labour of love.”

The ex-pat American who moved to London with her husband and two teenage sons to take up the post talks lovingly of her tunnel with its carefully-crafted brick lining, first completed in 1878.

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The Victorian brickwork is being carefully preserved, as well as the buttressed gradients leading down from the surface at each end, she points out.

The middle section which burrows under the channel connecting the Victoria and the Albert docks, splits into two twin-bores lined with cast-iron plates. This section is having to be enlarged to take the bigger Crossrail trains with their overhead cabling.

It means first laying a massive concrete slab on the bottom of the dock over the tunnel roof, then filling the twin tunnels with millions of tonnes of temporary concrete, to avoid splitting the roof when the reboring starts which might cause flooding from above.

Next, a giant worm-like drill is then brought in to cut through the temporary concrete while a new tunnel-lining is inserted with a greater radius for Crossrail’s larger trains than our Victorian forefathers could have envisaged.

The middle section has already been rebuilt once before, in 1935, when it had to be lowered a few feet because the deeper draught of bigger cargo ships in the docks above kept scraping the tunnel roof.

Exploration work has already been carried out inside the tunnel which last carried trains on the North London Line in 2006. Deep inside, the survey team found an “I love tunnels” graffiti sprayed on the wall. No-one knows who did it.

They also found a two-week-old baby fox, hungry and scared, which has since been handed to the RSPCA to look after. They couldn’t find the mother fox anywhere.

The original North Woolwich railway extension from Canning Town opened in 1847, before the Royal Docks were built. The tunnel was added 40 years later using the ‘cut and cover’ construction method when the docks were being laid out above.

The main Crossrail contract for the tunnel, the second major rebuilding in its 124-year history, was awarded last week to Vinci Construction, which is now putting out sub-contracts and hopes to recruit 100 workers to start in July.

It should be finished by 2015, three years before Crossrail itself opens to passengers, although Vinci is optimistic about getting it done by 2014.

The work goes ahead without disturbing marine traffic above. The cargo ships that packed into the world’s biggest enclosed docks system have not been seen on the Thames since the Royals closed 30 years ago.

Instead, there are luxury yachts and other marine craft, a powerful lobby that insisted the tunnel could only be used for Crossrail if reconstruction work did not disturb the marine traffic above, before the Bill went through Parliament three years ago.

There are also the runways of London City Airport that now occupy the old Albert Dock quayside.

Linda Miller has had to put in ‘sensors’ along the runway and other parts of the docks to make sure her ‘labour of love’ doesn’t disturb the neighbours too much.