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Transportation Technology

Mammoth "Metal Moles" Tunnel Deep Beneath London 294

Hugh Pickens writes "BBC reports that the first of eight highly specialized Tunnel Boring Machines (TBM), each weighing nearly 1,000 tonnes, is being positioned at Royal Oak in west London where it will begin its slow journey east. It will carve out a new east-west underground link that will eventually run 73 miles from Maidenhead and Heathrow in the west, to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east. Described as 'voracious worms nibbling their way under London,' the 150-meter long machines will operate 24 hours a day and move through the earth at a rate of about 100m per week, taking three years to build a network of tunnels beneath the city's streets. Behind a 6.2-meter cutter head is a hydraulic arm. Massive chunks of earth are fed via a narrow-gauge railway along the interior of the machine, which is itself on wheels, as the machines are monitored from a surface control room which tracks their positions using GPS. Hydraulic rams at the front keep them within millimeters of their designated routes. 'It's not so much a machine as a mobile factory,' says Roy Slocombe, adding that the machine is staffed by a 20-strong 'tunnel gang' and comes with its own kitchen and toilet. Meanwhile, critics complain that the project is a peculiarly British example of how not to get big infrastructure schemes off the ground, because almost 30 years will have elapsed from its political conception in 1989 to its current projected completion date of 2018."
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Mammoth "Metal Moles" Tunnel Deep Beneath London

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  • GPS? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Duvzo ( 221790 ) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @03:20PM (#39397201)

    GPS?? Underground? Cool, so my scuba GPS is just around the corner too then.

  • by Finallyjoined!!! ( 1158431 ) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @03:24PM (#39397233)

    How does London's subway system compare to everyone elses?

    It's older than any other subway system.... Which would make them the original leader, eh?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 18, 2012 @03:37PM (#39397341)

    This isn't about the London Underground at all, it is a heavy rail link.

  • Re:GPS? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 18, 2012 @04:02PM (#39397509)

    I'm pretty sure they know where the surface control room. It's the position of the machine that needs monitored, not the stationary control room.

  • by alex67500 ( 1609333 ) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @04:13PM (#39397561)

    Sorry, but no, it's in Cumbria, in the North of England. []

    And I lost one mod point for you...

  • by Richard_at_work ( 517087 ) <> on Sunday March 18, 2012 @04:29PM (#39397681)

    Well, it isn't going to do anything, because they don't want the tunnels collapsing...

    This isn't like pumping water, gas or oil out from under the ground - the tunnels need to be servicable and usable after the fact, otherwise there isn't any point in making them, so they get lined with concrete or some other material which keeps them rigid and bearing the weight of the ground above them.

    Bear in mind that they've been doing this in London for 200 years or more, what with the London Underground, service tunnels, Royal Mail tunnels, BT telecommunications tunnels etc etc etc. London is criscrossed with tunnels already, 99% of them not having any issue on the surface at all. They've got experience in this.

  • by rkww ( 675767 ) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @04:57PM (#39397841)
    The first London subway line opened in 1863, so it's not a new thing. In terms of milage, it's the second largest metro system in the world (ref. []) And 45% of its 249 miles are underground. There are some facts and figures here: []
  • Re:GPS? (Score:5, Informative)

    by garyebickford ( 222422 ) <gar37bic@[ ] ['gma' in gap]> on Sunday March 18, 2012 @05:00PM (#39397873)

    I don't know the specifics of this, but from my former work in an oilfield services company, I know that oil well drilling systems can track their own position within a few inches. One example [] from about 30 years ago was a set of wells drilled under an estuary in the UK. The gov. allowed the drilling company a one-acre island to do all the drilling from. They drilled down about a mile, then branched off into 10 separate holes that were drilled horizontally, following an oil seam that at times was only one foot high. The longest horizontal hole was about 10 kilometers (34000+feet, 6.6+ miles) long. Here is another reference [], including info on a new well system on the North Slope that extends even farther - two miles down, then over 10 km horizontally, then back down another km or two so they can use an existing oil processing facility.

    Drilling systems are among the most sophisticated technological marvels going - they include seismic signalling, mass spectrometry, neutron activation analysis, nuclear magnetic resonance, gamma ray spectral analysis [], and other really geeky stuff. The bit knows where it is geographically and where it is relative to the geological structures that it is following. The computers that sit 10 feet behind the actual bit meet tougher specs than military or aerospace - 1000 G shock, very high pressures (I forget the PSI), 400 degree F temperatures. Cooling is accomplished by the drilling fluid that is going past the outside of the drill string. Truly oil well technology is the perfect geekly combination of extreme "big heavy dangerous machines" plus extreme high tech.

  • by digitig ( 1056110 ) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @05:42PM (#39398129)
    That's sort of debatable. The tunnels are too small for it to work as a heavy rail link as defined in European rail standards (as was pointed out at a presentation I was at recently, they could get a European standard-sized heavy rail locomotive through the tunnel but not operate it through the tunnel because there's no room for safe electrical separations). But there's a policy decision for it not to be a metro system, which would allow smaller units. So it's actually neither one nor the other; a heavy rail system that is too light to be a heavy rail system. Say one thing for the British: we can compromise.
  • by Anonymous Brave Guy ( 457657 ) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @05:52PM (#39398183)

    In fairness, there are genuine improvements coming down the line. (Sorry...) These are at least partly driven by a desire not to look like idiots when a few million extra people are around for the Olympics later this year.

    New trains with air-conditioning and a walk-through design [], as used in underground networks such as those in Paris and Rome, have been rolling out for a year or so. They are replacing one line at a time and due to cover 40% of the network by 2015.

    Also, a deal was announced just last week for Virgin Media to provide WiFi access on the London Underground during the 2012 Olympics [], though it only covers station areas and not the trains themselves while they are in the tunnels. Its stated goal is to allow travellers to respond more quickly to disruption and avoid the busiest areas (which are almost certainly going to be flooded far beyond capacity at peak times during the Olympics, whatever happens).

    The system is still nowhere near the level of, for example, the other European capitals I mentioned, though, and won't get there any time soon.

  • Re:Why exaggerate? (Score:4, Informative)

    by FormOfActionBanana ( 966779 ) <> on Sunday March 18, 2012 @07:13PM (#39398673) Homepage

    Humphrey Davey called it Aluminum... and some jerk in a British publication reviewed his work and said "Aluminium" sounded more Latin. From then onward... chaos. []

  • by jo_ham ( 604554 ) <> on Sunday March 18, 2012 @08:13PM (#39399007)

    They are actually retrofitting AC systems into the newer rolling stock. It's just difficult due to the size of the tunnels, which places quite strict limits on the size of the train but more importantly, the ability to dump all that waste heat - you can't just pump it into the tunnels as it's already quite warm down there.

    You need to be able to use heat exchangers that are very efficient, or cycle the heat out of a transfer medium when the train comes up above ground (as they all tend to do outside of the centre).

  • by chill ( 34294 ) on Sunday March 18, 2012 @08:36PM (#39399157) Journal

    No. London's predates New York's by about 41 years. (1863 vs 1904). Glasgow's is dated to 1896, so even the Scots beat the Yanks to this. []

  • by Patch86 ( 1465427 ) on Monday March 19, 2012 @03:57AM (#39400897)

    London's Underground is what is usually considered its "subway" system. It's the oldest in the world, and one of the most comprehensive.

    This, however, is something else. This is a mainline railway route which is going under central London. Tube trains (on the London Underground) are small vehicles with an odd cross-section, so that they can go through smaller tunnels, and are powered by "four rail electrification". This new Crossrail line is designed for full-sized intercity trains, with normal overhead-wire electrification. This is part of why it's such a big project.

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