It doesn’t look like much.
I’m standing in a tunnel, near Churchill Station, about 6 metres below city streets, in front of a thick concrete wall. The wall is pock-marked with holes, somewhat like a giant slab of fossilized Swiss cheese.
It even has a mouse hole up top. A BIG mouse hole.
A loud rumble echoes down from the other end of the tunnel.
“We’re not going to have a visit from some oversized, pre-historic rodent that’s been running around Edmonton’s underground for the last half-century, are we?” I ask the project engineer. Hopefully.
The engineer looks at me funny.
“Because of the wall? Moldy Swiss cheese? Mousehole? No?”
He attempts a half-smile, not quite getting what I’m getting at. Too practical-minded, these engineers.
“Oh, that’s the articulated excavator, warming up. The night crew is about to start. They’re digging out the last few metres of the other tunnel tonight.”
“Ah.” I say. “ Never mind, then. Can I touch the wall?”
And so I do. I touch the final wall that separates north Edmonton from downtown—the wall that engineers placed here in the late 1970s, when Edmonton pioneered Light Rail Transit in North America, and cities across North America looked to our city as a model for the near-future of urban transportation.
Engineers put the wall there because they had a vision of what Edmonton might become, and at the core of this vision was an LRT system that extended to all parts of Edmonton, connecting hospitals, schools, businesses—ultimately, communities—with affordable, efficient, and sustainable transportation.
The city’s current transportation plan, The Way We Move, expands that vision, and takes our LRT system in directions even those foresighted planners couldn’t have predicted—towards a compact, connected city where daily public transit is a real option for all Edmontonians.
It’s taken us over 30 years, but by the time you read this, that wall in Churchill will be gone. I slide my hand into one of the holes in the wall, try to imagine the rock not there. The hole is just about the right size for…
“Hey, do you guys get to use dynamite down here? Can I see that?”
The project engineer shakes his head in bemused resignation.
Like most non-engineers, I have pretty much zero idea how a tunnel is built. What an articulated excavator is and does is, sadly, harder for me to imagine than a 20-foot mouse chewing its way through the city’s underberlly. Before coming to work for the city for LRT Design and Construction, my knowledge of tunnel construction could safely be summed up as: “Uh, machine goes in, digs up some dirt and stuff, then, uh, dirt gets trucked out.” For all I knew, we really did employ a 20 foot mouse to carve us out a path.
No. No mouse. Turns out you don’t get to use dynamite to explode your way to the future, either. Too unpredictable, not to mention city engineers are meticulous about keeping noise levels and community disturbance to a minimum during construction. Instead, workers place expanding grouting in each of the holes, and just wait for it to slowly break up the wall. Then they scoop out the wall.
It’s an anticlimactic finish to what is, overall, a massive project. The new LRT tunnels to north Edmonton run 700 metres, from Churchill station to the new station under construction at Grant MacEwan, crossing under 103A Ave and the new EPCOR Tower in the process. The tunnels were shoveled out every hour of every day, every day of the year, since the beginning of 2012—often in dirty, dusty, claustrophobic conditions.
At good times, the work is reminiscent of being a 5-year old, cheerfully digging up the back garden. At bad times… well, imagine being caught in a prairie dust-storm for hours at a time. That’s what it can feel like, working (underground) on the (light) railroad.
But it’s hard to describe what actually happens with this tunnel-building process. So, to capture how the work was done, we took a film crew down for some on-the-job experience with the very people making this project happen. Want to learn how an articulated excavator works? Or glean a short history lesson in sequential excavation? Or maybe you’re just curious about how workers get the tunnel to, you know, not cave in on the train. Well, have a look at the video, and start learning.
Since I’ve been deprived of both my giant mouse and my dynamite, I decide to head out and walk down the new line, to see what sights are on offer under the sun. Exiting the tunnels at MacEwan station, which has risen up from the ground in just the last month, the eye is immediately struck by the emerging architecture. The new station, even only half-finished, already looks pretty stunning, with an sinuous wooden roof shaped somewhat like a frozen wave. It’s the centerpiece to the new MacEwan plaza area, at 105 Avenue and 104 Street, and the beginning point of a new Multi-Use Trail that will extend the length of the NLRT expansion, providing pedestrians and cyclists with a safe and scenic alternate transportation route.
Leaving the station, the first thing I notice is the rail track. It’s right in the ground—as in IN the ground, not ON the ground. If you’ve ridden the existing LRT in Edmonton before, you’ve probably noticed that it generally looks like traditional railroad rails, a design called tie & ballast: wooden crossbeams under long iron rails. But starting at MacEwan and heading up 105 Street, the first thing you notice about the new LRT is that the track runs right through the road, embedded, creating a more seamless integration into the community.
Preserving the individual ‘feeling’ of the various communities has been an obvious project priority from the start. Walking down 105 Street, where the LRT will run right down the middle of the road, you can see plywood boxes protecting the local trees from construction-related damage. Before long, canopies will be mounted to shelter the new LRT line from nature’s continuous arboreal cycle, allowing trees and technology to coexist in communal harmony.
Arriving at 108 Avenue, I notice that the rail has changed again, and sits up on big stone slabs called ‘plinths’. This is called direct fixation, and, except for crossings, most of the rest of the line is built using this technique. We’ve captured the different kinds of rail and a bit of an explanation of how they were chosen and produced in this video:
Continuing up 104 Street, I pass by the Prince of Wales Armouries and Polish Hall, both historic community landmarks of the North Edmonton community. I’m now on one of the city’s busiest arterial roads: Kingsway. Construction has been heavy in this area all year long, and has probably had the most noticeable effect on traffic, as crews worked to get track crossings completed at the intersections of rail and road.
The good news is all of those crossings were finished in 2012, meaning fewer major traffic disruptions in 2013.
The better news is that Kingsway/Royal Alexandra Hospital area is not only getting a new Transit Centre—it’s getting a real eye-catcher of an LRT station as well, with an elegant chevron-shaped wooden roof.
Further up the line, as I walk down 106 Street, I can begin to see the new landscaping taking shape as I approach Princess Elizabeth Avenue, and the temporary terminus of the North LRT line at NAIT.
NAIT station isn’t quite as far along in development as MacEwan and Kingsway/Royal Alexandra, but when completed, like its sister stations, it will have a fully heated area for commuters waiting for the train in mid-February Edmonton winter. With the rapid progress that’s been made on the stations this year, they’re all ready for electrical and mechanical installation to proceed over the city’s snowier months.
It’s been a busy construction season for the North LRT to NAIT, and it’s pleasing to see the tangible progress that’s been made this year. With almost all of the rail in place, the stations rising up, and the new multi-use trail and landscaping beginning to take shape, there’s a lot to be excited about.
There may not be any 20-feet mice roaming around, but, well, we’re past the point of imagination now with the North LRT, and into something real and tangible. If you’d like to get an even more complete sense of what the City of Edmonton has been up to with this project in 2012, have a look at our wrap-up construction video for this year’s work.
So, after all this hard work, what’s in store for 2013? Well, more hard work, putting the finishing touches on the NLRT’s stations, installing infrastructure, and then testing the new line, as it gears up to open in Spring 2014.
When it does, rather than walking it, we’ll be happy to take you along for the ride. For now, if you’re curious, we have an animation that you can check out.
Thanks for coming along on this little trip, and thank you to all Edmontonians for their support and patience with the North LRT to NAIT project. It’s something we can all be proud of, and we promise you it’s worth waiting a little longer for.