The French were out in force this morning at a major event in Auckland when the Link Alliance signed the station and tunnel contract of New Zealand's largest infrastructure project, the $4.4 billion City Rail Link.

The dominance of French bosses within the Link Alliance contingent was apparent at the event at the Central Post Office above the tunnel where Transport Minister Phil Twyford and Mayor Phil Goff said it was a momentous occasion for Auckland.

Patrick Kadri, the president of Vinci Construction Grands Project, told those at the event of the importance of the project and described the signing as "an emotional moment, the conclusion of very many months of close collaboration", referring to working with CRL chief executive Sean Sweeney.

Francois Dudouit, a civil engineer of Vinci Construction Grands Projects and the Link Alliance project director, told the Herald afterwards that he had moved to Auckland two years ago to work on the bid and expects to spend about five years here. Most recently, he was working on Hong Kong's MTR.

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The Link Alliance is Vinci Construction Grands Projets S.A.S., Downer NZ, Soletanche Bachy International NZ, WSP Opus (NZ), AECOM New Zealand and Tonkin + Taylor and that entity was named in April as the preferred bidder for the important contract.

But the formal signing did not occur until today, because of the project's complexity.

Pierre Bourgeois, Vinci Construction Asia and Oceania civil works area manager and chairman of the Link Alliance board, told the Herald in a video interview that the twin 3.4km-long tunnels with two new stations would be built by a tunnel-boring machine which would be placed underground in sections, then joined together to work.

That machine could cut through rock and he said he did not see any issues with the project due to the alliance's expertise and experience.

Bourgeois said he had been visiting Auckland for the past 24 years and woud live here permanently from later this year, but he had not decided where.

Phil Twyford speaking at the Link Alliance signing. Photo / Focus
Phil Twyford speaking at the Link Alliance signing. Photo / Focus

In a written statement, Bourgeois said the Link Alliance was proud to be delivering such a landmark project for Auckland: "As a truly international team with members from more than 25 countries, we look forward to working alongside local communities to safely construct the City Rail Link over the next five years. Together with CRL Limited, we are committed to realising the outstanding legacy CRL will leave for New Zealand's biggest city."

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Work would begin at the Mt Eden end of the project, the machine would dig through the city to Albert St, turn, then head back to Mt Eden, creating the second tunnel, Bourgeois said.

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The tunnels will be about 7m in diametre so the tunnel-boring machine will be much smaller than Auckland's Alice, about 13m in diameter and which dug the twin-tunnel road project, Waterview.

City Rail Link won't be finished until 2024. Photo / Greg Bowker
City Rail Link won't be finished until 2024. Photo / Greg Bowker

None of the French executives could say what the CRL tunnel-boring machine would be called. But a mihi was held at the start of today's event and CRL has a Te Reo Māori name Te Waka Tūhono (waka train) so the machine might have a Māori name.

Whatever she is called, the name will be female because all tunnel-boring machines are named after females.

Jean-Luc Gobert, chief executive of Solentanche Bachy International, told the Herald before the event the machine's genesis remained uncertain but it might be built in either China or Europe.

Asked if he regarded volcanic rock at the Mt Eden end of the project as a potential challenge, Gobert said: "I don't think so. We know what's underground, with our team and expertise in design and construction."

In October, various businesses now working in offices including on Great South Rd at Ellerslie and elsewhere will come together in one new Link Alliance office.

There, 300 people will work on the station and tunnel section of the job from 100 Carlton Gore Rd in commercial space previously occupied by food business, Tegal.

French bosses dominate the Link Alliance which signed the contract today. Photo / Focus
French bosses dominate the Link Alliance which signed the contract today. Photo / Focus

John Varndell, civil infrastructure director at AECOM, said he was a board member on the Link Alliance. About 150 staff were already working in former Spotless premises on Great South Rd alone, he said.

"It's as big as AECOM's office here," Varndell said, referring to the Link Alliance staff.

Today's formal signing was of the project alliance agreement.

That now clears the way for the three construction companies, three design companies and CRL to start work building two new inner-city underground stations, upgrading the existing Mt Eden station, and completing tunnel construction.

This phase of the contract is known as C3.

CITY RAIL LINK

• $4.4b project to deliver two 3.4km-long tunnels
• Not due to be finished until 2024
• Tunnels from Britomart to Mt Eden
• Cut and cover tunnels dug at Britomart end
• Tunnel/station contract awarded to Link Alliance
• New stations: Aotea on Albert St, Karangahape Rd
• Jointly funded by Government/Auckland Council
• Aucklanders make 100m public transport trips a year
• CRL opens the rail network for major expansion