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Tunnelling academy looks beyond training Crossrail workers

The Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy is proving essential in delivering Crossrail but also has one eye on how its facilities and expertise can benefit construction for decades to come.

Crossrail is Europe’s largest infrastructure project and currently employs more than 7,000 people.

That number will double this year as the scheme moves into the peak tunnelling period, with five of the eight tunnel boring machines already operational from sites at Royal Oak, Limmo and Plumstead.

As there is a shortage of people with the necessary skills to work underground, the project has created some unique training requirements that it needed to address.

So Crossrail invested £7.5m, with a further £5m from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills via the Skills Funding Agency, to create the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy in Ilford, east London. 

Short and long game

Currently the 3,600 sq m, two-storey academy is dedicated to training those working on Crossrail.

But the facilities and curriculum are designed to meet future industry needs as well as the immediate demand. The main training provider is the National Construction College and other specialists supply tutors for particular courses.

“Even people who have done confined space training before find the smoke adds another layer of disorientation and difficulty”

Chris Blake, TUCA

The TUCA is unlike any other training establishment in Europe and has a simulated pit top and pit bottom, as well as a tunnel section with rails for training drivers.

There is also a covered area dedicated to sprayed concrete lining equipment and it even has a concrete testing laboratory.

The academy offers pre-employment and apprentice training as well as workforce development and bespoke courses, starting with tunnel safety training which all Crossrail workers must attend. There is also training for underground drivers, gantry cranes and access platform operators.

Both safety and safety management feature prominently in the TUCA’s prospectus, with trainees taught how to escape from smoke-filled confined spaces. “Even people who have done confined space training before find that the smoke adds another layer of disorientation and difficulty,” says senior instructor Chris Blake.

All Crossrail workers must also hold a Tunnel Safety Card and a current CSCS health and safety card, the academy also has 12 touch-screen stations to enable computerised tests to be taken during or after the training.

Structured approach

Most training is divided into theoretical (pre-use checks, certification, risk assessment, etc) in one of six classrooms, and practical sessions in the workshops and simulated tunnel sections. 

For instance, underground trains are used on the project to haul spoil from the tunnelling machines to a point where it can be hoisted to the surface with a gantry crane.

The TUCA therefore includes a tunnel section, complete with the system of signalling lights that run along the walls to train drivers how to position the demountable carriages for loading and unloading by gantry crane.

Gantry crane operators, even experienced ones, also undergo specialist training to handle the unusual loads encountered in the project, such as the large spoil skips, pre-cast tunnel sections, the hardener for spraycrete and other materials.

“We have a training facility that is unique in Europe and so we have a good chance of oversees students being sent here”

Melvyn Parr, TUCA

Another large training workshop contains several tunnel sections along with truck, track and trailer-mounted concrete-spraying machines for operator training.

“In tunnelling operations such as Crossrail, spraycreting has to be done quickly and correctly for production to proceed,” Mr Blake explains.

“By using our remote facility at the academy, new employees can be trained on spraycreting techniques and processes before they even get on site.”

Through the week, students learn how to rig the machines and spray the concrete and at the weekend contractors come in and remove the hardened lining ready for the following week’s students.

Trainee demographics

Many trainees are seeking their first job, some have experience using similar equipment on other sites, but few will have previously worked underground. So novices’ courses are limited to four trainees (six for experienced workers).

All the training is done to recognised standards and at the end of their course most participants will take an examination such as CSCS, CPCS and NVQ, which they must hold before they can take up a position with Crossrail.

As the project’s training needs tail off, the aim is to start training workers from other tunnelling and underground projects from both the UK and abroad – training is available in languages other than English.

Product manager Melvyn Parr says: “We have a training facility that is unique in Europe and so we have a good chance of oversees students being sent here. Even within the UK it can be difficult to find courses such as confined space training and spray concreting.

“And the more general courses such as work at height, safety management and the use of access platforms are used throughout the construction industry, not just tunnelling.”

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