Spring 2013

Fleet management

Crossrail is one of the biggest ongoing civil engineering projects in the UK, and engineers from Strainstall are involved in some vital associated work – in ensuring that the course of the ancient Fleet river remains undisturbed by its construction.

The Fleet is perhaps the best known of London’s underground rivers. Rising in Hampstead Heath, it has its outfall in the Thames under Blackfriars bridge. In Roman times it was a substantial river, but as London grew in population, it became little more than an open sewer in its southern reaches, and it was entirely covered by the 1870s.

Subterranean night shift 

Owing to the concrete deliveries made during the day for the Crossrail construction work, the sewer must be accessed at night. Therefore the Strainstall team – consisting of team leader Nick Townsend, field operations engineer Richard Woodford and technician Ryan Willetts – arrive on site at Farringdon at quarter past seven in the evening. After a briefing, they climb into their sewer gear, which – along with the usual hard hat and goggles – features chest waders, a white paper suit, three layers of gloves, a face mask with ammonia filters to get rid of the smell, a gas monitor and an emergency escape kit. 

By half past eight the team are ready to begin work on the installation of sensors, along with the associated fittings and cabling, using scaffolding especially chosen for its flexibility.

Ryan explains:

“We’ve drilled hundreds of holes so in that sense it’s not been very different to a lot of the other works we do every week.”

The team gets an hour and a half for ‘lunch’ at 2am; if that sounds generous, bear in mind that it takes a half an hour to decontaminate and another half hour to get into all that sewer kit again! They start to pack up their tools at 6:45am and the shift ends just before half past seven in the morning, after which they head to their hotel for some well-earned rest.

A different kind of challenge

As with any job, there are upsides and downsides. The sewers can be slippery and smelly, though most of the Fleet’s content is just surface water run-off.

Nick adds:

“The sewer environment isn’t as bad as many people imagine.”

The other big downside is that weather can – and has – held up work, but as Ryan explains:

“Working in a historic environment like these sewers makes it all worthwhile, even if we have to do some waiting around from time to time."

Also on the upside, the length of the project has enabled the team to forge stronger working relationships with the safety team from UKDN Waterflow than would have been possible in a shorter job. 

Richard Slaughter admits that spending so much time in a sewer wasn’t something he’d envisaged while studying for his degree.

Richard comments:

“Working on a project like Crossrail, even in a small capacity in relation to the overall scheme, is an honour and allows me to help make a difference to thousands of people commuting every day."

Nick agrees:

“It’s been an absolute pleasure to work on this job – just being involved in something of this scale is something I’ve dreamed of in the past. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time working here and look forward to completing the job on time and within budget.” 

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