A chief executive's chair usually carries a lot of authority, but I have had a timely reminder here at City Rail Link (CRL) that it is authority that goes only so far.
Any authority I do have at New Zealand's biggest transport infrastructure project falls well short of foreseeing what the future holds — put simply, I cannot guarantee that it is not going to rain next Sunday, nor can I foretell the next disruption due to Covid.
We have a tremendous and exciting year ahead. Months of hard slog completing enabling works are behind us. We'll still be working up a sweat with a lot of mahi ahead but construction's now our main focus building the tunnels and stations and installing the rail systems, the phase when this game-changer of a project for Auckland really starts to take shape — above and below ground.
During a recent visit to our Mt Eden site I counted some 25 pieces of big and busy machinery in action — a very "heavy metal" reminder of the scope and scale of CRL. Add to that the well-advanced work reassembling our Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM), Dame Whina Cooper, ahead of its underground journey into central Auckland.
At the Karangahape and Aotea sites, work is already well advanced on carving out the country's first underground stations. Further downtown, an important CRL celebration is only a few weeks away — one that acknowledges the city's past and its future. After years of digging and delving, lifting and lowering, we're about to return the historic Chief Post Office to Aucklanders. The heritage building's being spruced up to be ready to resume its role as the main gateway across striking Te Komititanga to the Britomart Station, with the added bonus of a couple of transformational CRL tunnels now running through its basement.
With such a tremendous construction programme gathering pace, it's fair to say that the project as a whole is tracking well, but CRL's scale and complexity means we must plan for unforeseen challenges.
I'm often asked if CRL will be completed on time in late 2024 and within our $4.4 billion funding envelope.
As I've indicated, I can't see into the future regarding CRL's timetable and money.
Auckland's latest Covid lockdowns are one example. Our construction teams continue working but observing strict health and safety protocols means it takes longer for them to access our sites and once there people have to follow self-distancing rules. The lockdowns are also another unwelcome reminder of a New Zealand border reinforced against the virus.
Like every other infrastructure project in New Zealand, CRL depends on overseas workers with skills not found here. We will need to import another 100 or so of these skills this year.
While most of our international workers come on two- or three-year contracts, the trans-Tasman highway between New Zealand and Australia is blocked for fly-in, fly-out workers, and for specialists here for only a few days. Add to the mix overseas workers already in New Zealand who haven't been back to see their families for a year or so — they won't stay here forever.
CRL, together with the wider infrastructure industry, continues to work with Government to ensure we get the workers and the skills we need.
Other uncertainties are those "secrets" buried beneath Auckland's streets.
Despite having in place what I proudly describe as an ambitious, high-calibre team, despite thousands and thousands of hours planning and designing, and despite having more test boreholes drilled than anyone's done on any comparable job, we came across an unexpected challenge building New Zealand's deepest railway station.
While using a couple of specialised road header machines to mine the platforms at Karangahape 32 metres below central Auckland, workers came across an earthquake fault line six-to-eight metres wide running across both planned platform shafts.
In the so-called good old days, the tunnelling team manager might use nothing more than a crowbar to test soil stability.
Those hit-or-miss days are long gone, thankfully, replaced with more technical savvy and safety.
We're reinforcing the roof with steel rods to prevent the possibility of the fault crumbling. It's something engineers call a heavy intervention. But it's also another reminder of uncertainties ahead as we knuckle down for our accelerating construction programme.
One thing is certain, though. By the end of the year CRL will be looking a lot different from today.
Our TBM will have broken through at Aotea after its first excavation from Mt Eden, and we'll know a lot more about building tunnels and stations under Auckland.
Looking further ahead, when our tunnelling is finally complete and we're a long way through station construction and there are new protocols to guard New Zealand's borders, there will be more definitive information about completion dates and funding.
In the meantime, our mahi continues apace and there will be milestones to celebrate in the weeks and months ahead as we build a first-class railway to help Auckland grow and prosper.
- Dr Sean Sweeney is CEO of City Rail Link.