A short walk from Canning Town tube and DLR station two vast holes have been dug into the ground by Crossrail, and in the not too distant future, one is to be filled back in again.

These are access shafts that are 44 metres deep and are needed to let the Tunnel Boring Machines (TBM) get down far enough into the ground to do their thing. Ordinarily, the TBMs drill down from the surface along a gentle slope, but at this location that is not just not possible, but actually undesirable for the venue (map link).

So they dig a big hole in the ground and lower the TBM down to the bottom and send it off horizontally from there.

However, the TBM is about 150 metres long, so they are digging two big holes, and will link them up with a short tunnel at the bottom, and the TBM will be assembled underground, ready to head towards central London later this year.

Crossrail Limmo Peninsula

One shaft will remain as an emergency escape route, but the other will simply be filled back in again as it serves absolutely no purpose once the TBM’s have done their digging work.

The shafts were newsworthy recently when the remains of old shipbuilding docks were discovered as they dug down. The docks being also the founders of the West Ham football club.

Last Friday was a chance to have a look around the site as the two wide shafts have now reached their bottom and the joining tunnels are now being constructed.

The auxiliary shaft was dug by driving down sheet steel piles and digging out the soil, then they dug down further spraying concrete on the walls to stop them from collapsing. Being a deep hole with limited ventilation at the bottom, large fan machines cycle air through the site.

Crossrail Limmo Peninsula

Elsewhere on the site, the TBM nicknamed “Elizabeth” has been delivered from Germany in pieces and the main cutting head is now being put back together again. This November one of the UK’s largest cranes will arrive on site and will lift this giant machine up and over to the other shaft where it will be lowered down to face Central London.

The rest of the TBM will be assembled behind it and end up poking out the back of the auxiliary shaft we just looked down at.

Crossrail Limmo Peninsula

This map may offer an insight into the relationship between the two shafts. The map is aligned with east to the top, so the “bottom” shaft is at the Western end of the peninsula, and will be the permanent shaft. The other is the temporary one, which will vanish in a couple of years time.

Crossrail Limmo Peninsula

The small black lines you can see at the “top” of the drawing in the river is a docking point for barges. When the TBM is working, the waste soil will come out of these shafts and then carried away by river to the RSBP site in Wallasea Island where is being used to create a nature reserve.

Other barges will also return laden with the concrete rings that will line the tunnels. Some 15,000 rings will be needed by this part of the project, and each ring is made of 7 segments. The factory is at Chatham, and mirrors the one I visited in North London.

Inching around the site – the 30-metre wide main shaft is substantially more robust in construction methods. A planning application document has a side view of how the main shaft will look when finished.

Crossrail Limmo Peninsula

Crossrail Limmo Peninsula

Ever wondered how you get down to the bottom of a deep shaft? Well, one way is to walk down a very long flight of scaffolding stairs, but that also means a very long walk up again. Not ideal. So the preferred method of transport is a box on the end of a crane.

Crossrail Limmo Peninsula

As it happened, we took the stairs down as the “lift” was busy, but came back up by crane/box/chain.

The concrete wall at the bottom is currently being drilled out to create the “eyes” that the TBMs will line up. The concrete wall of the shaft is too hard for the TBM to drill through on its own, so the concrete will be removed in slabs then the wall reinforced with a skin of thin spraycrete to hold the clay back until the TBM starts churning through the soil.

Crossrail Limmo Peninsula

Time to leave…

Crossrail Limmo Peninsula

Over 250 people are now working at the Limmo Peninsula site with that number expected to peak at around 500 people at the height of construction.

Crossrail’s eastern tunnels will run for 5.2 miles from Docklands to Farringdon where they will join with the western tunnels from Paddington. The TBMs will then be reused to dig eastwards as well to link up with the Connaught Tunnel works.

A load more photos here.


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  1. Daniel Tonks says:

    Another facinating article Ian. It’s the little things like this that are often overlooked, all that concrete has to come from somewhere!

  2. Michael says:

    Thanks for the post. I knew that, obviously, building tunnels this long wasn’t going to be a piece of cake, but I had no idea that the complications and fiddly bits would be at least as complicated!

    Could you say more about the eastern TBMs being reused? For example, do you mean that there’ll be one TBM going east-to-west towards Farringdon, then turning around to dig the second tunnel Farringdon-the East?

    (Probably obvious what you meant, but I didn’t quite get it.) Thanks!

    • IanVisits says:

      Two TBMs will leave for Limmmo towards Farringdon within a few weeks of each other.

      One will then be reused afterwards to drive two short tunnels from Limmo towards Connaught and the one TBM will dig both tunnels one after the other.

  3. Frank Bath says:

    Another good piece Ian. You are an industry. Have you read how Marc Brunel sank his shafts prior to tunnelling under the river? Ingenious. Or did I learn it from you?

    • IanVisits says:

      Ingenious – if you ignore the problem that one of the shafts got stuck once and it took a lot of effort to release it again. The concept is still used for some caissons and shafts though.

    • Daniel Tonks says:

      The Parisians came up with a brilliant one when building the Metro over their, they froze the mud at one point.

1 Pings/Trackbacks for "A look at some deep Crossrail tunnel shafts"
  1. […] TBM — called Elizabeth — departed from the Limmo Peninsula near Canning Town, passed through the Canary Wharf station and has now reached the crossover point […]

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