HS2's First Tunnel Boring Machine Launches, Marking a Major Milestone in High-Speed Rail Construction

Posted on 13 May 2021

The construction of High Speed 2 (HS2) marks a momentous occasion as the project embarks on a new phase with the introduction of its first tunnel boring machine (TBM) at the South Portal site near the M25 in Buckinghamshire. This monumental TBM, named Florence, weighs a staggering 2,000 tons and is the initial member of a remarkable fleet of ten machines that will excavate an impressive 102 kilometres of tunnels for the high-speed rail line. Florence's primary mission is to delve into the earth, crafting the inaugural 16-kilometre-long tunnel beneath the magnificent Chiltern hills while diligently ensuring the preservation of the precious above-ground woodland and its thriving wildlife habitats.

In the following month, anticipation builds as another TBM, christened Cecilia, is set to commence its excavation journey, churning the earth and crafting the second tunnel at the South Portal site. These remarkable TBMs will be skillfully operated by Align, the esteemed main works contractor for HS2, which consists of the eminent alliance of Bouygues Travaux PublicsSir Robert McAlpine, and Volker Fitzpatrick. Uniquely designed to conquer the challenges posed by the geological composition of the Chilterns region, these two identical machines boast the prowess required to construct separate tunnels to accommodate the flow of northbound and southbound trains. Each TBM acts as a self-contained underground factory, seamlessly and relentlessly carving through the earth, meticulously lining the tunnels with concrete wall segments, and anchoring them securely in place with the precision of grouting operations that facilitate an impressive progress rate of approximately 15 meters per day. A colossal undertaking awaits as each tunnel demands an astounding 56,000 precision-engineered, fibre-reinforced segments, a monumental feat accomplished entirely on-site.

To ensure the seamless operation of these engineering marvels, a skilled crew of seventeen individuals will work tirelessly in shifts, diligently overseeing the intricate operations within each TBM, allowing for continuous progress around the clock. Above ground, a team of over 100 dedicated professionals will support their endeavours, skillfully managing the logistics and intricacies of the tunnelling operation to maintain a smooth and efficient workflow. The excavation process will yield valuable chalk, meticulously extracted from the tunnels, which will find purpose in the post-construction landscaping endeavours at the south portal site. This ingenious repurposing of excavated chalk will cultivate the growth of wildlife-rich chalk grassland habitats across an expansive area encompassing 127 hectares of the picturesque southern Chiltern hills.

The birth of Florence and Cecilia, the formidable TBMs at the heart of this groundbreaking endeavour, traces back to their origins in southwest Germany, where renowned manufacturer Herrenknecht meticulously crafted these colossal machines. Transporting these engineering marvels to the United Kingdom required over 300 separate shipments throughout the previous year. Once on British soil, a dedicated team of tunnelling engineers undertook the meticulous process of reassembly, rigorous testing, and comprehensive commissioning to ensure the optimal performance and safety of these awe-inspiring machines.

The significance of this moment is not lost on Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who regards this milestone as a landmark achievement for the HS2 project. He emphasises the unwavering commitment to enhancing transportation infrastructure throughout the United Kingdom. The launch of the first TBM signifies a profound step forward in the realisation of a high-speed railway network that offers sustainable, low-carbon alternatives for long-distance travel, ultimately fostering improved connectivity and facilitating unparalleled opportunities for economic growth and skill development across the country.

HS2 Ltd Chief Executive Mark Thurston shares in the enthusiasm, describing this moment as one of genuine excitement. Recognising the broader impact of the HS2 project, he emphasises its potential to reshape the landscape of long-distance travel in the UK, providing eco-friendly alternatives that support the nation's sustainability goals. Similarly, HS2 Minister Andrew Stephenson hails this occasion as a truly historic moment, underscoring the project's pivotal role in job creation, economic revitalisation, and the nation's steadfast commitment to rebuilding and emerging stronger from the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

For Daniel Altier, the esteemed project director at Align, this achievement evokes immense pride and satisfaction. He acknowledges the unparalleled innovations incorporated into Florence and Cecilia, which aim to enhance efficiency and safety for the diligent crew operating within these monumental machines. The implementation of these groundbreaking technologies represents an unprecedented milestone in the realm of TBMs worldwide. Altier extends heartfelt gratitude to the entire integrated project team, including Align, design partner Align D, and HS2, along with their invaluable suppliers. Their tireless dedication and unwavering commitment have paved the way for the successful launch of Florence, propelling the HS2 project closer to its transformative vision.

The launch of Florence, the first tunnel boring machine of the HS2 project, ushers in a new era of progress and innovation. With the remarkable feat of constructing extensive tunnels beneath the Chiltern Hills, HS2 sets the stage for a high-speed railway network that will revolutionise transportation in the UK. This monumental endeavour showcases the collaborative efforts of dedicated professionals, from skilled crews operating within the TBMs to the support teams managing logistics on the surface. With each passing day, as Florence and Cecilia continue their underground journey, the vision of a more connected and prosperous future for the country comes closer to fruition.

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