Tunneling under the Thames

18 March 2014

Projects like London's Crossrail require scores of cranes, working to strict safety rules. Zak Garner-Purkis visited the project to see the cranes in action, and spoke to Ainscough about what a rental firm needs to do to meet site compliance demands.

Crossrail is Europe's largest construction project, covering a distance of nearly 21km. At a cost of over £14bn the project presents a huge number of opportunities for those in the construction, industry including many crane firms. Ainscough are one such company benefiting from this major infrastructure project and have had countless machines hired by Crossrail's contractors to work on its many job sites.

The jobs however comes with certain requirements, one of which is safety. Strict guidelines mean that crane firms need to train staff thoroughly before they can work on the site.

A section that has seen a particularly large number of cranes is the Plumbsted to Woolwich tunnel. Tunnelling has long been a good source of work for crane companies as the setup of a tunnel site means that cranes are required to perform a range of daily lifting tasks, moving equipment from one side of the tunnel to the other or on and off rails. The Crossrail sites between Woolwich and Plumbstead are no different with cranes working regularly on the construction sites, so much so that the contractors regularly supplement theuir own fleet with rented units.

"We have a set of crawlers owned by Murphy almost permanently on site, the number of these varies depending on the type of work that we have to do" says Chris Ashton, site manager for Hochtief Murphy, "For example, early on in the process we had six crawlers located at the dock section of the site. When we require additional lifting capabilities we hire mobile cranes from Ainscough.

"The mobile cranes we have working here come in for varying amounts of time. Sometimes it can be long stretches, at other times it's shorter periods. We might have one crane working for 95 days on double shifts and another come in for two-to-three days at a time. We've had nearly every single Ainscough driver in the London area working on this site because the demand for cranes has been so strong. There is a new one required almost every two weeks."

"The advantage of working with a company like Ainscough is that they have the resources that allow us to contact them at late notice and still be sure that will deliver. All the drivers come with the necessary training to work on site. It takes one call and we can have a crane on site the next day."

For most tunneling jobs, the part of the project requiring the heaviest capacity cranes is when the tunnel boring machines (TBMs) are placed into and removed from the ground. At the Plumbstead Woolwich site this is no different, as Ashton explains: "Installing the TBM into the ground took a 700t crane, removing the machine will be a more difficult task as the room is restricted, meaning that the lifting radius will be less and the crane will have to be further from the tunnel. For this reason we will be using a 1,000t crane to remove the TBM. This is partly because of the rail line which runs right by the site."

The location of Crossrail sites presents other challenges as the urban setting restricts the way in which these cranes can be used.

Ashton continues, "The complexities of working in a built-up urban environment can be a challenge when using cranes. For example, because of regulations, the cranes we have around the portal had to work at 75% of capacity before the site had been fully developed."

Training, tests and certifications
On a high profile project such as Crossrail safety is a massive priority. If an accident were to occur on a site connected to the project the impact would be huge. You only have to look at accidents at major projects, such as the Brazillian World Cup stadium sites, to see how embaressing a accident on a high profile job site can be. There are special requirements placed upon any firm wishing to work on one of the sites.

Ainscough SHE-Q and training director John Lowton explains: "There are special requirements for the equipment and for training on Crossrail sites. Firstly, all the cranes must be fitted with the necessary cameras, this includes a reversing camera and a side monitor which helps the driver to see cyclists in his blind spots."

"Another aspect of the Crossrail requirements is the urban environment training for our crane drivers. This course includes a day spent cycling around London roads so they can gain a different perspective. The cost isn't so much money but the time it takes for these requirements to be met. There is also the question of medicals, which our staff are required to complete in order to be allowed on site. As the project is both a rail and construction site there are two sets of medical stipulations that must be adhered to."

"When all this is put together it is a significant amount of time and effort that the company needs to undergo. Urban training takes one day, the medical takes another, fitting the crane is another day's work and then there is the on-site induction. This means all told it can take 4-5 days to have someone completely qualified to work on a Crossrail site."

As with many major projects with strict site requirements, distinct from general legislation, at the start of the process there were often occasions where unqualified workers end up on site Lowton continues: "In the early days there was some leakage in the system, although it is much stricter now. Earlier in the process we were hearing anecdotal stories about competitors who had been working without the necessary specifications. It's now tightened up a lot.

"The key difference with Crossrail is that we are being prompted not by legislation, but by site requirements. In a lot of ways these requirements are setting a precedent which could well be adopted by other places in the UK."

Stricter, broader, training is something that is gaining increasing prominence in the UK's construction sector. Certain sectors have always had more detailed guidelines than others and, with projects such as Crossrail pushing forward construction policies, more comprehensive training could become the norm. Lowton says, "The level of requirements on Crossrail is something that has been going on in the rail and petrochemical sectors for some time, but has not always been a part of the construction business. These industries, along with nuclear , have been at the forefront of training and now construction is starting to follow suit. Previously we've known that if our worker was operating at a rail site they needed a special card or if they were working in petrochemicals they had to meet certain requirements but that's now coming in to the construction sector too."

"It's something that we are making company policy because it makes sense to do so, rather than training people on a job-by-job basis. We always knew that we had to train a certain number of our staff to work on particular sites and manage things in relation to this, but as construction ups its requirements it makers sense to make it a company wide initiative. You are still going to get little niggles such as whether someone is required to have a two year or a three medical, but that's not a major problem."

"The process is very much an evolution rather than a revolution and we have a moral responsibility to our staff to make such changes. I think that people in any industry look to the bigger players to set the example. They have more money time and resources to carry out such procedures and therefore should embrace the changes. It all levels out: the smaller operators need to qualify less people but at the end of the day, they are all required to be."

Major projects can often be the driving force behind changes occurring in different industries, whether Crossrail will prove to be a major factor in changing part of the crane business remains to be seen. However, it is certainly having an impact on the UK lifting industry, whether in terms of providing work for the sector or in setting the benchmark for training.

An Ainscough crane begins a lift on the Woolwich Crossrail site