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The Secret Nightlife of Tunnel-Boring Machines

I joined a crowd of people to watch a crane lift two tunnel boring machines from the ground in the dead of night.
April 22, 2015, 6:30pm
​Image: Zack Kotzer

​What does a transit geek look like? Do they wear lettermen jackets that read MTA, TTC, BART? Do they have novelty glasses shaped like trains with the choo-choo wheels making the lenses? Do they wear conductor hats in public?

These were questions I found myself asking as I watched two massive tunnel boring machines make a portage last weekend—a big heave of construction as part of the city of Toronto's latest public transit push. The tunnel borers, named Dennis and Lea, had to be lifted over an existing subway line. Since this is the station where the subway surfaces, the shallow tunnel boxes prevented the gargantuan drills from safely burrowing underneath.

While the work is a nuisance for some residents of the area, locals, transit geeks, construction watchers and night owls were invited to watch. Some 200 people showed up at 2 AM to watch a pair of 400-ton machines move 70 yards above ground over a three-hour period. Obviously, I decided to join them.

The main reason this operation was taking place so late into the night was the risk of one of the machines crashing through the subway tunnel below. They wanted the subway to be closed, abandoned, except for the rats.

The entire stretch of road had been closed off too, and a small set of bleachers were set up next to a hot chocolate tent. Photographers nestled on the north mound of a park across the street. With all the lighting and various lifts, the neighbourhood I grew up in—and was watching be torn up—was starting to look like a Transformers movie set piece.

Dennis' journey was pretty simple—hoisted up, transferred on to a moving platform that was controlled by a joystick, like the greatest RC car Santa never brought you. It was then maneuvered under a second crane, onto a platform that slid out like a Jenga piece, and lowered back down.

The borer looked like a giant muddy bullet, its front face like a room fan and its back end something more sci-fi.

I was told the hardhats held a small BBQ inside the fenced area before crowds assembled. But once people began to show, the construction crew formed packed rows in front of Dennis—like yellow-hatted stagehands. By 2 AM, Dennis had risen, and passerby could see the hulking thing. Workers used a crane to pin banners on Dennis' side, and while they tried to make sure they weren't crooked, audience members joked that the PR display was causing a delay.

Out late were friends, families, kids and dogs—people from the area, people from surrounding towns, people from the media and people with long ponytails.

Sammy, a kid with his hood up and his hat down to his brow, claimed he was seeking $700k in damages from the construction crew after he crashed his motorcycle into one of their sites. Yet he told me he still wanted to see the show. "I can crush the grudge," he said. "A few rotten apples don't spoil the bunch"

Then there was Leon, a pleasant retiree with a sitcom-dad physique who has lived in the area his whole life.

"I've seen them make a false attempt at building a subway here. I've seen them do this," Leon told me. "I'm just interested in big machinery and engineering, that's just my background and interest."

Leon's eyes began to sparkle when I asked why he was out at 3 AM watching a construction site. He said he was proud the rail was finally being built (this stretch of subway had been attempted before and was nearly cancelled again)—proud of the innovation, and all the hardware that was made in Canada. "I'm proud of my country," said Leon, "can't we toot our own horn sometimes? How often can you see this? Let's toot our own horn."

Something I'm sure the councillor and construction companies knew when they invited people out and brewed hot chocolate was that not everyone was looking to see a giant dirty drill. This was just construction relabeled as performance. Some people wanted proof—that all the mess and noise would end in success this time, and that all the compromises nearby businesses have had to make will be worth it.

The final stage of Dennis' journey didn't take very long at all. The crawl along the road took around 20 minutes, and you could watch the crowd shuffle along the sidewalk to keep up. More time was spent preparing Dennis to be lowered. Each creak and rattle of the straps that cradled the drill caused people to turn to attention.

By the time the second crane started to lower Dennis you could hear the birds starting to sing. The crowd had reduced to a smaller bundle of die-hards—which, incredibly, still included children around 5 AM. I wondered how late some of these folk stayed up on New Year's Eve.