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Tunnel breakthrough: City Rail Link boring machine Dame Whina Cooper completes the job

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City Rail Link has today reached a milestone after the tunnel boring machine completed the second of two rail tunnels. Video / Supplied

Auckland’s $4.4 billion City Rail Link reached a milestone this evening as Dame Whina Cooper, the giant boring machine, cut through a fibre-reinforced cement wall to complete the second of two rail tunnels.

The breakthrough was greeted by cheers from Auckland Mayor Phil Goff and Cooper’s daughter Hinerangi Cooper-Puru among guests and workers at the new Te Waihorotiu (Aotea) station being built 15m below Albert St in the central city.

Dame Whina’s son-in-law, Mika Puru, wearing a safety hat painted with the iconic image of the Māori leader walking hand in hand with her mokopuna, Irenee Cooper, at the start of the Land March in 1975, had a grandstand seat for the occasion.

Mika Puru had a grandstand seat at the breakthrough last night. Photo / NZME
Mika Puru had a grandstand seat at the breakthrough last night. Photo / NZME

“I don’t think I will ever see another thing like this,” said the whanau member, who travelled from the small Northland town of Punguru in the Hokianga Harbour to witness the final march of the boring machine.

This followed about five months of GPS-tracked grinding by the custom-built tunnel boring machine – operated by a crew of 12 people alongside another dozen workers above ground – at a speed of 15m per day to arrive in the exact position at the station.

The 130m long tunnel boring machine, whose cutting wheel has a diameter of 7.2m, was named after Dame Whina Cooper – the champion of Māori rights who led the hīkoi to Parliament.

It’s a tradition that a tunnel boring machine cannot start work until it has a woman’s name to honour St Barbara, the patron saint of underground workers, as a sign of good luck.

The tunnel boring machine breaking through the fibre-reinforced cement wall. Photo / NZME
The tunnel boring machine breaking through the fibre-reinforced cement wall. Photo / NZME

Dame Whina Cooper will now be moved out of the tunnel, dismantled, and shipped back to its manufacturer, Herrenknecht, in Germany.

“I think back to our beginning at Mt Eden and am so grateful we are here, together at the end. Two wāhine toa have been with us throughout the TBM’s journey – my Mum and Saint Barbara,” Cooper-Puru said.

Goff said the final tunnel breakthrough is the culmination of 13 months of hard work by the tunnelling teams, saying when it is open sometime from 2025 it will immediately double the capacity of the city’s rail network from 15,000 passengers per hour to 27,000.

The twin tunnels at Te Waihorotiu Station showing the concrete wall on the right before the tunnel boring machine broke through. Photo / Jed Bradley
The twin tunnels at Te Waihorotiu Station showing the concrete wall on the right before the tunnel boring machine broke through. Photo / Jed Bradley

It will ultimately carry up to 54,000 passengers, said Goff. For that to happen, another $7.5b needs to be spent on upgrading the wider rail network over the coming decades.

Goff said the CRL will be a critical part of the world-class public transport network that Auckland needs to succeed as New Zealand’s international city.

Francois Dudouit, who heads the Link Alliance, the contractors with the main contract for the tunnels and stations. Photo / Supplied
Francois Dudouit, who heads the Link Alliance, the contractors with the main contract for the tunnels and stations. Photo / Supplied

City Rail Link boss Dr Sean Sweeney and Francois Dudouit, project director of the Link Alliance building the main contract of tunnels and stations, thanked the team of 2000 workers who have completed the tunnel boring phase in the face of the global pandemic.

“Building an underground rail network has never been attempted in New Zealand before,” Sweeney said.

With the boring phase completed, attention now switches to completing work on the two new underground stations, Te Waihorotiu and Karanga-a-Hape at Karangahape Rd, a new above-ground station at Mt Eden, and fitting out the tunnels.

Rail tracks are on site and being prepared for laying in the tunnels, as well as sleepers, electronics, safety systems, and other essential componentry.

City Rail Link boss Dr Sean Sweeney. Photo / Jed Bradley
City Rail Link boss Dr Sean Sweeney. Photo / Jed Bradley

The opening date is up in the air, along with a cost blowout on the mega project.

Last week, Sweeney did not want to speculate on the new opening date, which had been set down for December 2024.

Sweeney said it was his goal and pushing hard to present the new cost and opening date to the Government and Auckland Council, who are jointly funding the project, by the end of the year, but said there are “still a lot of balls in the air”.

Auckland mayoral and council candidates have called for City Rail Link Ltd – the body set up to deliver the CRL – to open the books on the new cost for the mammoth project before next month’s local body elections.



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