What is it about tunnelling machines and names?

First there was Alice, the giant tunnel boring machine, rumbling under Auckland to create part of the Waterview Connection.

Along came Valerie, the boring machine named after Olympic shot putter Dame Valerie Adams, to install a new stormwater pipe under Albert St as part of the City Rail Link.

This was followed by a nine-storey piling rig named "Gomer" after the 1960s TV character Gomer Pyle, to drive piles deep into Albert St for the CRL tunnels.

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Who knows what the 7.5m diameter tunnel boring machine will be called when the main CRL contract for creating twin underground tunnels from Mt Eden to Mayoral Dr in the city gets going in 2019?

Perhaps Robbie, after Sir Dove Myer Robinson, the Auckland City Mayor whose "rapid rail" vision the National Government scuppered in the 1970s - to the eternal regret of many Aucklanders.

Named or otherwise, the arrival of the tunnelling machine marks a key moment in construction of the CRL, which has an estimated cost of between $2.8 billion to $3.4b.

It's at the Mt Eden end of the 3.5km underground rail tunnel, up to 42m below ground, that the boring machine will transfer debris along a conveyor belt for disposal and install concrete segments along the tunnel wall.

It will be an exciting milestone for the CRL project team, headed by Chris Meale, the programme director for the Sydney rail project, who was "deported" from Australia five years ago to bring his skills to Auckland.

• WATCH: City Rail Link explained

What is the CRL and what will it look like?

Meale leads a team of 130 Auckland Transport staff from the AMP office tower overlooking the first stages of the CRL from Britomart and up Albert St to Wyndham St. Up to 150 more engineers, designers and technical staff from the private sector are on the job that will employ 1600 workers at the peak of construction.

Meale is pleased with progress five years after designation for the route was lodged. In that time about $140 million of property purchases have been completed, consents and design work ticked off and construction begun.

To date, $420m has been spent on the mammoth project, whose cost has risen from between $2b and $3b less than a year ago to between $2.8b and $3.4b. With Auckland building costs rising 17 per cent in the past year, Meale says the final costs won't be known until the major contracts are let late next year.

An artist impression of the underground rail station to be built at Albert St.
An artist impression of the underground rail station to be built at Albert St.

The biggest contract, to build the tunnels and stations, has attracted strong interest from New Zealand, Australia, Europe and China, with eight companies chosen to move to the next phase.

Meale is not going to speculate on the final cost - half of which will be paid by Auckland Council and half by taxpayers after the Government formally came on board in September last year.

As part of the funding agreement, an independent company, City Rail Link Ltd, is being set up to assume control of delivering the project from July 1. The company will be chaired by a Government Mr Fix It man and former NZ Post chief executive, Sir Brian Roche. He will be joined by four directors, still to be appointed.

Meale acknowledges the project is disrupting people's lives, but says that's big city life.

"It is something New Zealand has been sheltered from. For us it is totally new but if you have grown up in a London or a big city, this stuff happens all the time," says Meale, who says the CRL team has tried to be sensitive and "fleet of foot" on things like traffic management.

Construction at the corner Victoria Street and Albert Street. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Construction at the corner Victoria Street and Albert Street. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Fourteen businesses have made claims for loss of business, of which four have reached a formal process. One of these has been rejected and three are still being considered. Work is going on to support businesses through the construction, including opportunities for pop-up public spaces and drawing people to the city for events like Restaurant Month and Auckland Fashion Week.

What's next

First works

Cut and cover tunnels - built in trenches from the surface - will be completed on the first stage of the project from Britomart, under Lower Queen St and the Precinct site and up Albert St to Wyndham St by late 2019.

Once the trenches have been dug, the concrete floor, walls and roof of the tunnels will be cast before the structures are backfilled.

This work is being carried out by three companies/consortiums - a Downer-led consortium from Britomart and under Lower Queen St to the Precinct site; Fletcher Construction on the Precinct site; and a McConnell Dowell-Hawkins joint venture called Connectus along Albert St to Wyndham St.

Next contracts

Next year, the main contract to build the tunnels and stations will be awarded to one of eight local and international companies competing for the work.

Work on the main contract is due to begin in 2019, boring the two tunnels from the Mt Eden end at varying depths to take into account the limited climbing capacity of the electric trains. There is a 70m climb from Britomart to Mt Eden.

The tunnels will be dug with a 7.5m diameter tunnel boring machine, which will go as far as Mayoral Dr before being dismantled and returned to the site for a second tunnel bore.

The main construction site will be at the Mt Eden end adjacent to New North Rd.

New stations

Two new underground stations will be built - Aotea and Karangahape Rd - and Mt Eden station will be rebuilt.

Aotea will be a cut and cover construction of a 15m deep, 300m long station along Albert St, between Victoria St and Wellesley St. The new underground Karangahape Rd Station will be a mined construction, 32m deep, including 150m long platforms with an entrance on Mercury Lane and provision for a future entrance at Beresford Square.

Mt Eden station will be closed and completely rebuilt to allow the CRL to connect to the west towards Swanson and the east to Newmarket. To accommodate the CRL, the western line will be rebuilt between Dominion Rd and Mt Eden prison. This will be a lengthy and complex process involving realignment of track, overhead line and signalling systems.

Other work

There will be a separate contract for the tunnel systems, including laying the tracks, overhead lines, signalling, control systems, ventilation, fire system and control rooms for the tunnels.

Other contracts include a large stormwater diversion at Mt Eden and modifications to the eastern entrance at Britomart station.

All going well, the CRL will open in 2023/24.

The man they lured back

Auckland was a rail desert when Californian architect Mario Madayag was selected in 2000 to transform the dilapidated Britomart precinct into a rail, bus and ferry hub at the bottom of Queen St.

At the start of the new millennium the city's rail patronage was a pathetic two million passenger trips a year. Nearly 15 years after the Britomart train station opened, patronage has soared to 18 million trips.

Mario Madayag, the American architect for Britomart who has returned to New Zealand talks about his thoughts on the CRL. 24 May 2017 New Zealand Herald Photograph by Greg Bowker
Mario Madayag, the American architect for Britomart who has returned to New Zealand talks about his thoughts on the CRL. 24 May 2017 New Zealand Herald Photograph by Greg Bowker

Madayag, with the local architectural firm Jasmax, played a huge part laying the foundations for Britomart and restoring the historic Central Post Office building.

By sheer coincidence, Madayag's return to New Zealand a few weeks ago coincided with the CPO being sealed off for a second refurbishment - this time to turn Britomart into a through station as part of the City Rail Link project.

The building was future-proofed for a number of scenarios, including plans by then Auckland City Mayor Christine Fletcher to run light rail up Queen St, says Madayag, speaking in the shed-like temporary rail station at the rear of the CPO.

The softly-spoken American, who returned to the US in 2010 during the Global Financial Crisis when work dried up on large commercial developments and a project with Auckland artist Michael Parekowhai came up in Arizona, says Auckland has matured for the better since he first arrived in 1999.

Mario Madayag, the American architect for Britomart who has returned to New Zealand talks about his thoughts on the CRL. 24 May 2017 New Zealand Herald Photograph by Greg Bowker
Mario Madayag, the American architect for Britomart who has returned to New Zealand talks about his thoughts on the CRL. 24 May 2017 New Zealand Herald Photograph by Greg Bowker

The 3.5ha Britomart block, with its rundown buildings and bunker-like bus terminal, used to be the "wild west" where stabbings and sexual assaults happened, says Madayag. Now it's a "goldmine".

The same goes for Wynyard Quarter, built on the east-west axis the architect envisaged as part of his original entry for Britomart. Bicycle paths into the city are another exciting change.

Madayag was lured back for a job in the council's Auckland Design Office to work on the central city master plan, a 2012 planning document that has languished in a mire of bureaucracy and a shortage of funding.

"It gives me access to the whole city, " he says. "Who gets to do that?"