A gloomy Monday in Germany this week presented us with a rare opportunity – the chance to see the first (and, as it happened also the second) of Crossrail’s Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs) close up.

In total, eight TBMs will be used on the Crossrail project. Six of these (including the example pictured below) are Earth Pressure Balanced Machines (EPBs). These will be used, in pairs, to bore the tunnels from the Limmo Peninsular, Royal Oak and Pudding Mill Lane tunnelling portals. Two Slurry TBMs will also be required for the new “Thames Tunnel” beneath the river. As it stands, all these TBMs will effectively be life-expired once they have completed their respective drives. Herrenknecht were able to confirm that the current contract contains a buy-back clause allowing them to buy the TBMs back upon completion of the tunnelling. Crossrail have confirmed, however, that there have also been very general, hypothetical discussions about the possibility of reconditioning and reusing the TBMs instead, should Crossrail 2 make it definitively off the drawing board.

Although let as a number of separate contracts (based on the portals), all of these were ultimately awarded to Herrenknecht. Herrenknecht have previous form in London, having provided the TBMs for both the Jubilee Line Extension and the DLR Woolwich Arsenal extension. This has actually allowed for some efficiencies – mainly through the ability to establish a shared spare-parts pool. It has also meant that Herrenknecht were able to commit to producing the TBMs in 10 months rather than 12.

The two TBMs currently being prepared are the EPBs for contract C300 – the boring of the tunnels from Royal Oak Portal (we have looked at the portal itself previously here). The first of these now sits at Herrenknecht’s German plant, where it is undergoing final factory testing. It will shortly be dismantled and shipped to the UK, where it will be reassembled on the portal ramp at Westbourne Park.

The TBM from the front

The TBM from the front

The TBM from the side

The TBM from the side

As the photos above hopefully convey, the TBM’s are grand in scale, with a 7.1m cutterhead and (when fully connected to their conveyor train) 140m in length. They are by no means the largest TBMs Herrenknecht have built (indeed the firm is currently working on a 19m cutterhead TBM for a Russian project), but they are still impressive pieces of engineering. As well as cutting, these TBMs will also lay the precast tunnel segments behind themselves as they pass beneath the capital.

The Cutterhead Straight On

The Cutterhead Straight On

Those familiar with TBMs will notice that these TBMs have an unusually open cutterhead for an EPB – indeed they’re over 50% open. This is because they will need to deal with the significant amount of clay to be found beneath London.

The Cutterhead Close Up

The Cutterhead Close Up

This close up view of the cutterhead hopefully begins to give some idea as to the boring process. The cutterhead and the space behind it are pressurised in order to help prevent the tunnel collapsing before the lining is laid (pressure chambers allow worker access to the area behind the cutterhead if it’s required)

The TBM's Pressure Chamber

The TBM’s Pressure Chamber

As the TBM slowly advances (they’ll operate 24hrs a day and bore approximately 100m of tunnel a week), spoil accumulates in the space behind the cutterhead. This is then carried away by a large screw and deposited on a conveyor running the length of the top of the TBM.

The Conveyor Bed Behind the Cutterhead

The Conveyor Bed Behind the Cutterhead

The Top of the TBM

The Top of the TBM

To advance, the TBM effectively uses exactly the same technique first pioneered by Brunel on the Thames Tunnel over 150 years ago – it jacks itself forward on the tunnel rings it has been laying behind itself.

In order to do this, 22 double hydraulic jacks are located in a circle on the rear of the cutting shield.

The Hydraulic Jacks

The Hydraulic Jacks

Once sufficient space has been excavated, the jacks are retracted and a new tunnel ring is laid. It is to this activity that much of the TBM’s length is effectively dedicated. Inside, the TBM is essentially a long tunnel, complete with its own narrow gauge railway.

Looking down the TBM's length

Looking down the TBM’s length

Inside, Looking Towards the Head

Inside, Looking Towards the Head

Inside, Looking Away from the Head

Inside, Looking Away from the Head

The Narrow Gauge Railway

The Narrow Gauge Railway

The railway brings new pre-cast ring sections forward from the rear. Tunnelling is as much logistics as it is hardcore engineering, and the process of casting and providing these reinforced tunnel segments is as complex as the act of tunnelling itself. These will all be cast on site at the portals, with the casting factory at Old Oak Common already now operational and producing 100 segments a day. All the ring segments are actually slightly curved to either the left or right, the placement of different combinations of these allowing the path of the tunnel to be changed as required.

These segments, once delivered to the front of the TBM, are then taken off of the narrow gauge and lifted onto a short conveyor which carries them forward to where they need to be laid.

The Segment Loader

The Segment Loader

The Loader and Final Conveyor

The Loader and Final Conveyor

Our German hosts were kind enough to fire up the TBM in order to give a better idea as to the final ring laying action. This can be seen in the video below.

Once the rings are in place, a concrete grout mixture is injected between them and the tunnel wall.

Each TBM is operated by a crew of about 20, with about 12 of those on the TBM itself. The TBM itself is controlled from a small cabin located just behind the tunnel head. This can be seen in the picture below – as can a justifiably proud Ralph Lickert, the Project Manager overseeing the construction of the two TBMs for the Royal Oak Portal. As with all the paired TBMs, these will effectively be mirror images of each other inside (the cabin will be on the left on one, for example, and on the right on the other). This is necessary in order to keep the supporting conveyors and logistics separate when crossovers are constructed.

Ralph Lickert, Proud Father

Ralph Lickert, Proud Father

It’s from the cabin that the TBM is piloted and kept on course – a doubly vital activity on Crossrail due to the tight margins the tunnel needs to be constructed within. At Tottenham Court Road, for example, the TBMs will pass within less than 50cm of the active Northern Line tunnels.

Finally, Ralph was kind enough to direct our attention elsewhere on the Herrenknecht site, where this TBM’s twin could be seen nearing completion.

The Second Royal Oak TBM

The Second Royal Oak TBM

Both TBMs will be in West London early next year, where they will be the first to start tunnelling in March 2012.

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There are 34 comments on this article
  1. Anonymous says:

    Giant sandworms coming to London. The spice must flow!

  2. Ratty says:

    Great reporting – thanks!

    Let me start with the stupid questions:
    1. What are the cutting blades made of and do they need constant replacing/sharpening?
    2. How does the steering mechanism work?
    3. Do they stop on bank holidays without treble pay and a day in lieu? 🙂

  3. Anonymous says:

    Why can’t we Brits make this stuff for our own infrastructure?

  4. Pedantic of Purley says:

    Why can’t we Brits make this stuff for our own infrastructure?

    Hopefully because we have the sense to recognise it would be economic folly to do so. There is a limited demand for TBM’s. The don’t exactly fly off the supermarket shelves. So the european market probably would support only one manufacturer. Like train building you want a steady stream of orders. You don’t want stop-start. Also TBM’s are big and difficult to transport. If you are going to be europe’s TBM manufacturer you don’t site yourself on an isolated island to the west of the main markets. We would be far better off making stuff like high-tech aeroplane engines (large market, high value, not overly dependant on raw materials, not easy for others to acquire the technical knowledge to be your rival) – which is exactly what we do.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for your answer, I was just curious.

  6. Anthony Pooley says:

    Pedantic of Purley is of course completely wrong. It would be far from economic folly to build TBMs in the UK, as the market for them is truly global. There are only a handful of companies making these machines and their businesses are booming as more and more cities go underground for more space. Herrenknecht sends TBMs to every corner of the globe, and being on an island would be no obstacle, as long as you can get to a port.
    The main TBM manufacturers are in Europe (Herrenknecht in Germany, NFM in France, Seli in Italy) and Japan (Misubishi, Kawasaki, Hitachi Zosen). A Chinese company has recently started producing them, and Herrenknecht has opened a Chinese facility. Caterpillar recently bought the Canadian firm Lovat, and of course there is Robbins in the US. There are a few other smaller players.
    As for why we don’t build them in the UK, could it be because economic activity in the UK seems increasingly to be about amoral psychopaths in the City exchanging slips of paper with each other and charging each other for the privilege?

  7. Fandroid says:

    The only other manufacturer that I am aware of is Lovat of Canada. No doubt there are Japanese/Chinese ones too. I don’t think we’ve made these things here since the 1960s. Back in 2000 I saw a monster one in place to bore a tunnel for the Betuweroute rail line capable of carrying double-stack container trains beneath one of the main waterways in Europoort, Rotterdam. Awesome. I must try to wangle a trip to see one in place when they’re working.

  8. Anonymous says:

    The demand for TBM is going to be huge over the next 10-15 years as middle-income countries plough trillions into infrastructure to combat inflation-spiking bottlenecks and increase productivity. Most people know about China, but that isn’t the only country. Look at the rail expansion projects in Sao Paulo and about 6 other Brazilian cities. There are also HSR plans in Brazil, Argentina and Morocco which are likely to begin within 5 years and plenty of road tunnels planned globally. Latin America, Africa and Asia outside of the NE corner don’t have any firms building TBM, so European companies are well placed to obtain contracts.

  9. Pettyfogger says:

    If there was only one company in Europe making TBM’s then this country wouldn’t need to worry about value-for-money bidding any more. Then we could really see the value of products/services offered! As it is I read from the article that there was more than one company producing TBM’s, or at least capable of and that the Crossrail ones are to order due to London’s specific geological conditions. The obvious advantage of commonality of engineering parts was stated as the main reason for a successful bid rather than no one else bidding. This is a common advantage to Germany, the benefits of strength in depth in manufacturing. It is why a country with strong unions lower working week and high production costs is able to compete (or if the only company making something is German, setting the Euro artificially low helps too). No doubt all the companies were non-UK due to our non-interventionist policy and liberal take-over laws. If only we adopted the same economic policy as Germany we might compete with our TCM’s too but obviously (according to some) to be left with their poorly performing economy would be economic folly.

  10. Anonymous says:

    @Anthony Pooley- You only embarrass yourself when you suggest that TBMs should be built in Britain. We don’t have the comparative advantage on building them as compared to Germany. The benefits that the EU free market brings us is that we can buy these machines from someone who makes them cheaper than we do! As for the bankers thing, although there are many things wrong with the city, blaming everything on the city does nothing to improve someone’s argument.

  11. Guy says:

    John – did they tell you the name of the Russian project, I’d love to read about a project that needs a tunnel that big!

  12. Pedantic of Purley says:

    I think the best analogy I can draw on is shipbuilding. Shipbuilding like TBMs requires loads of steel to build them. This make sense if you have serious quantities of iron ore that can be economic to extract from the ground like Germany does and we don’t. We don’t do shipbuilding any more because others can get the raw materials and the labour cheaper. Germany might not be cheap for labour but they have a justified reputation for engineering quality.

    It is true that Herrenknecht sends TBMs to every corner of the globe but according to their website at least most of their products seem to end up in Europe. Having a large range of mountains relativity nearby probably helps create demand. I agree that the demand for TBMs will probably rise dramatically but we would be largely competing on price if we were to get into that market and unless we can pull off something truly innovative we are going to lose out – just like we did with shipbuilding.

    It is also true that being an island we can ship to anywhere in the world. That is fine if you build them on the coast. Otherwise you still have the problem of transporting them inland. On the continent they have wide long commercial canals and navigable inland rivers. We don’t.

  13. LU Mole says:

    This gives me the engineering horn. And i MAY be working on this project….mmmmm.

    This kind of technology is VERY specialised with massive overheads. Could we do it? of course. But why should we risk setting up a cpmpany from scratch, itf the germans have a tack record then go with it. We may learn something

  14. Anoniem says:

    If you want to see a Herrenknecht TBM currently digging a tunnel under Amsterdam’s city centre, this video shows the placing of the tunnel segments:

    And daily updates of the route can be seen at:

    It would be nice if something similar would be set up for CrossRail.

  15. Sean Baggaley says:


    “1. What are the cutting blades made of and do they need constant replacing/sharpening?”

    The cutting heads actually scrape the surface ahead of the TBM, so what they’re made of depends heavily on the terrain they’re expected to encounter. It’s usually some form of very hard steel alloy, but it can, and does, vary.

    Very hard rock (e.g. granite) is usually tunnelled through by blasting with explosives as TBM blades wouldn’t last more than a few hours at best—and minutes at worst.

    Softer rock is tackled with TBMs, and North London sits mostly on a clay with a Plasticene-like consistency. (There are sections of sand and gravel, but it’s mostly that London Clay.)

    London Clay is god’s gift to tunnellers, and is, in large part, why the London Underground sprang up so quickly in the 1800s: it’s a piece of cake for a TBM to chew through. The cutting heads do wear out less frequently in the softer ground conditions, but they do nevertheless wear out, like any other moving part that encounters a lot of friction. How often these specific TBMs will need their cutting heads replaced will depend on the type of cutting head Herrenknecht’s designers decided to fit, but it’s not unusual for some TBMs to require replacement heads on an almost daily basis when digging through tougher terrain. My (wild, gesticulating, hand-wavy) guess would be “roughly once or twice a week”, but don’t quote me on that.

    In the East End, where the Thames crossing will be, the tunnel passes through, basically, waterlogged mud and sand—hence the “Earth Pressure Balance” (“EPB”) TBMs intended for that section. You need to keep the air pressure above normal at the head of the TBM to hold back all that water, but the very soft—almost liquid—ground means the cutting heads shouldn’t need replacing very often.

    2. How does the steering mechanism work?

    Lasers. There’s usually one set up to point in the correct direction of travel by a surveyor. It’ll tell the operator if the TBM is drifting a little off course, so they can make minor adjustments.

    As to the “how “part: See those numbered blocks in the fifth picture (just under the first YouTube video)? Those are hydraulic jacks, and they run all around the edge of the TBM’s cutting head. The TBM uses these to press the head forward into the bit of tunnel it’s just dug out. The gap is then filled by a new ring of tunnel lining panels. Steering is achieved by modifying exactly how much each jack is extended after laying each new ring of tunnel lining panels. (You can also achieve a similar result by modifying the lining panels themselves, but modifying the jack extensions is more accurate as these are computer controlled.)

    TBMs don’t have a particularly good turning circle compared to, say, a London Black Cab, but they’re not as inflexibly rigid as they appear at first glance. Most of a TBM is conveyor belt and logistical backup gear, but it can all flex a little bit. (This is an obvious requirement if you think about it: a TBM that can’t turn can only build straight tunnels!)

    TBMs can be steered very precisely.

    3. Do they stop on bank holidays without treble pay and a day in lieu?

    Ah, well! Depends on who’s doing the buildin’, don’t it, guv’nor!

  16. Sean Baggaley says:

    @Anthony Pooley: You’re right in that HM Government has been far too smitten with tertiary service industries and the finance sector in particular.

    Believe it or not, the UK is home to a very successful computer games industry, but you’d never know it by listening to the government or the media. (The government is actually going out of its way to punish its homegrown games industry, despite the *billions* of pounds it brings into the country.) I blame society myself. It is the *voters* who ultimately elect governments. And then *re-elect* them. Over and over again.

    But I disagree with your assertion that the UK could start building TBMs too. One of the reasons for the Italians, Austrians and Germans being so into such heavy industries is because they need them *themselves*. Italy, Germany, Austria and Switzerland all have major geographical obstacles to overcome. They have the kind of terrain that the British Isles can only boast of in places like the Scottish and Welsh Highlands. Most of the population of the UK lives in geographically humdrum England, which has very little in the way of cruel and unusual geography. (And what little it does have is mostly in a National Park!)

    When the Italians widen some of their older, dual-carriageway motorways (which are closer to the UK’s A Roads in design), their more mountainous sections effectively means these older roads are being replaced by completely new roads, often on *entirely* new alignments, with a lot more tunnels.

    On top of that, most EU nations are undergoing a major upgrade of old infrastructure. (The UK, for some reason, insists on being the kid at the side of the field, looking on while all his friends have all the fun.)

    The upshot of which is that, to the Italians, Austrians and Swiss at least, tunnelling is second nature and dirt cheap. The new Hindhead Tunnels under the Devil’s Punchbowl on the A3? The Italians would point and laugh at all the hoo-hah that project received; in the UK, it was being touted as a “major” project. In Italy, such tunnels can be found on minor *B* roads! Motorways get them as a matter of course.

    China also has an awful lot of mountains to contend with, so it’s no surprise that they’re getting in on the TBM-building act too. (China’s administration has always had a bit of a “Not Invented Here” complex, so I expect there’s more than a hint of that as well.)

    The UK’s *only* real market for TBMs is the export one. This is partly because the UK simply isn’t all that big, so its home market is inherently limited, but it’s also because the UK itself simply doesn’t “do” major infrastructure investment. Crossrail 1 is already 20 years late. The Thameslink upgrade was originally branded “Thameslink 2000″—after the year it was supposed to have been *completed!* The JLE came in massively over-budget and had to be ‘rescued’, along with what is now known as HS1. And let’s not get started on the WCRM project, or the ongoing farce that is HS2.

    No, the UK doesn’t build trains, TBMs, or have many other such industries because it tore out its industrial heart some 30 years ago. The Britain that was once an engine of industry finally died when Margaret Thatcher entered 10 Downing Street. Not that bits of that engine didn’t need a major overhaul, but the Thatcher administration effectively threw out the baby with the bathwater. The fire was doused and the nation’s industrial sector was pretty much destroyed.

    We’re left with banking, the creative industries (TV, games, advertising), and not a hell of a lot else. This is not a healthy state for an economy to be in.

  17. Anonymous says:

    I’m sure such things could be built in the UK. For example, Joy Mining Machinery have a plant in Worcester making very heavy mining equipment that is exported all over the world.

  18. Paul says:

    It’s sad to see the UK succumb to misguided politics and not invest properly in infrastructure or industry.

    One of the fundamental things to understand about the world is that “the economy” is fundamentally something that needs to add value to peoples lives – ie do something useful – in order to be productive. The problem with a service based economy is that it’s fundamentally incestuous – in the end a significant proportion of the world’s economy needs to produce real items of value and sell them to real people for a realistic price and at least cover their costs. Otherwise it’s just a series of financial conjuring tricks that’s only sustainable for a limited period.

  19. Alan Griffiths says:

    Enough of this expression “Thames Tunnel”, which is also being used by Thames Water for their project to clean up the tidal Thames.

    THE Thames Tunnel is the one built by Marc & Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It brooks no namesakes.

  20. Anonymous says:

    There is a tunnelling machine (Greathead shield) left in-situ at Moorgate station on the old City Northern Line (left there in 1903). It doesn’t look as impressive, but I guess in 1903 it was state-of-the-art technology.

  21. Ratty says:

    Thanks Sean for such complete answers. Now I get it.

    Does a TBM driver earn less than a tube driver?

  22. Fandroid says:

    The water industry has been the main promoter of TBM tunnel construction in the UK in recent years. These are almost always smaller in diameter than rail or road tunnels. One of this week’s news items in the civil engineering magazine NCE concerns the launch at Beckton of the 7m diameter TBM for Thames Water’s Lee Tunnel which will carry storm sewage from Abbey Mills to Beckton. That is a Herrenknecht ‘mixshield slurry TBM’. It will pass mainly through Upper Chalk but has to be to a rather more sophisticated design as it has to also pass through the Thanet Sands, which to put it in strictly technical terms, will be wet and orrible. The water industry is very strictly regulated on what it spends its capital on, so has to be totally unemotional about getting best value for money. Hence the best rise to the top, like Herrenknecht (& Siemens for rolling stock !)

    I didn’t think Germany had much in the way of iron ore, so doubt that is a reason for their predominance. In the 21st century it comes in huge bulk carriers from places like Australia. Germany prizes engineering skill and invests for the long-term, unlike our investors who dash around looking for glamour and fast bucks, and then sell on to similar speculators.

    I checked out the other TBM manufacturer I was aware of, Lovat. It is still based in Canada, but is now owned by Caterpiller. Interestingly, Lovat have just delivered a TBM for a 33km power tunnel through London. This will drive from Willesden towards St Johns Wood. However, Herrenknecht have another already working from Harringey.

    As has already been said, TBMs are for relatively soft and uniform ground. The presence of the Alps has about zilch relevance for creating a TBM market. However, it’s true we make a mighty fuss about doing nothing very difficult, like the Hindhead road tunnel on the A3. I think that was dug with road-headers, basically wheel or track mounted hydraulic excavators digging at the face with buckets (like big JCBs).

    I remember a huge fuss here about the difficulties of building the M62 over the Pennines. Then I went to Italy and saw where the real engineering skill was, with autostrade through the Appennines consisting of a succession of tunnels and viaducts with just about no level ground between them.

    Crossrail is a great piece of infrastructure investment. We might be slow starting, but’s let’s fully appreciate it.

    (Why all this tunnelling news – there’s just been the Tunnelling 2011 conference!)

  23. Pedantic of Purley says:

    I didn’t think Germany had much in the way of iron ore
    Maybe not that much compared to China and Australia. But is still produces over 300, 000 metric tons annually. The figures for different countries can be found at here.

    The presence of the Alps has about zilch relevance for creating a TBM market
    I think not! A quick look at the Herrenknecht website would confirm this such as this this video. Unless you regard boring the longest railway tunnel in the world with TBMs as of zilch relevance.

    Or use this search page to discover how many TBMs are being used in Alpine projects in Switzerland alone.

  24. Luongo says:

    The article states that the TBMs will progress about 100m per week. I make that 60cm per hour which, considering they will mostly be passing through soft London clay, does not seem very much to me. Why will progress be so slow?

  25. AnotherTom says:

    You can see a TBM cutter head close up at Cutty Sark DLR station

  26. Anonymous says:

    Thank God we can’t build in any equipment in the UK these days. Better to be a magnet for 3rd-world economic migrants and Easto catering/pub staff that are happy to life 8 to a flat..

  27. john b says:

    The UK is on course to build more cars in 2011 than in any previous year. The suggestion that it’s no longer a major industrial nation is, for want of a better word, bollocks.

  28. Lazarus says:

    I agree with John B: before we beat ourselves up lets look at some facts.

    Industry as a % of GDP (2010; source the CIA

    France 18.6%
    UK 21.7 %
    USA 22.2%
    Japan 24.9 %
    EU average 25.0%
    Germany 27.8%

    So thats better than France, nearly the same as the USA, but a bit shy of Japan and Germany.

    No longer a major industrial nation?

  29. MiaM says:

    Slightly off-topic:
    Besides an iron ore you also need coal to produce steel. Germany (and even more so Poland) has coal, but AFAIK the raw material from iron ores are bougt from other countries like for example Sweden, (Search for the electric locomotive called “IORE” and you will find one of the worlds biggest electrical locomotives, used to haul the heavy trains from iron ores in Sweden to the port in Narvik, Norway and Luleå, Sweden.

  30. James Hardy says:


    The article states that the TBMs will progress about 100m per week. I make that 60cm per hour which, considering they will mostly be passing through soft London clay, does not seem very much to me. Why will progress be so slow?

    a 7.1m diameter tunnel cutting head has an area of about 40m², so the volume of clay removed in an hour would be 24m³ – a weight of between 40 and 50 tonnes, so my guess is that transporting that amount of material away from the site that would be a significant bottleneck.

  31. PhilD says:

    Crossrail’s Twitter account has just posted this photo of the first TBM Cutterhead being lowered into place:!/Crossrail/status/164327217294356481/photo/1

  32. ALEXANDER says:


  33. slugabed says:

    The tunnelling conditions in London are specialised,and the TBMs reflect London conditions.
    London is built in an alluvial basin,where sand and gravel overlays a stiff clay.The bedrock,chalk,is too deep to be relevant for Crossrail.
    Boring a tunnel through the London Clay is extremely simple.Occasionally the TBM will hit lenses of water-bearing sand and gravel.These are usually stabilised using chemical setting,or even freezing to enable the TBM to proceed,
    I would recommend visiting the Institute of Civil Engineers’ Virtual Library….they will have articles about tunnelling technology in London.

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