Saturday, August 15, 2009

Canada Line ready for 2010 Olympics

Vancouver Sun


Vancouver has a unique resource that will help visitors during the winter Olympics in 2010, and an important legacy infratstruture for the future. BC's largest transportation project was completed months ahead of schedule and on budget. If only all projects are championed by dedicated staff.


Every curve, hump, twist and bend along the new rapid transit Canada Line is etched into Roger Woodhead’s memory.

False Creek and the Olympic Village are just ahead, he points out through the large picture window at the front of the train. At another section, the train curves around Little Mountain. Back the other way, the train jumps over the existing SkyTrain line.

For the past four years, Woodhead has lived and breathed the $2-billion Canada Line — B.C.’s largest and most expensive transportation construction job — as technical director for SNC-Lavalin, one of the project’s joint-venture partners.

As the head engineer on the job, his days were long. His nights were sometimes sleepless. The technical headaches were numerous.

The 19-kilometre line, which links downtown Vancouver and Richmond, weaves its way through two tunnels and along a skybridge over the Fraser River, marking the first time a Canadian city has run a rapid transit line to its international airport.

More than 200,000 cubic metres of sand and silt had to be excavated and dumped at sea to make room for the bored tunnel, which stretches from the foot of Granville Street to Cambie Street, while tunnel-borers had to tread carefully in sections where the soil turned to till, fearing they could strike boulders or other obstacles.

At King Edward, wells were dug to pump out excess water along the route. The tunnel dipped 30 metres below False Creek, and was diverted under the Pacific Centre Mall passageway near Granville Street and over the existing SkyTrain track.

As the SkyTrain continued to run during Canada Line construction, the workers were asked to build the new section outside peak hours. “We had to put reinforcements in the tunnel because they were quite nervous,” Woodhead said.

The bored tunnel was considered one of the biggest challenges of the project, along with the “extradosed” bridge — one that combines girders and cables, and is a first in North America — stretching across the Fraser River.

The bridge’s pilings, concrete wrapped in steel casings and driven into fairly dense sand, had to be strong enough to withstand an earthquake, Woodhead said. The bridge has cables that are shorter than usual because it is located under the flyway, and includes dedicated pedestrian and bicycle access.

Throughout, Woodhead persevered, even in the wake of a human rights complaint by SNC-Lavalin’s foreign workers who won a $2.4-million discrimination award because they were paid less than the locals.

He and his 200 workers also faced major headaches on Cambie Street when a last-minute decision was made to switch from a bored tunnel to a cut-and-cover method.

Woodhead said they likely wouldn’t have finished the job on time if they hadn’t swapped to the cut-and-cover tunnel.

More things tend to go wrong with bored tunnels, he said, as the machine can strike boulders or get tied up. He also noted the stations under the bored tunnel are 12 metres from the surface, while those under Cambie Village are half that, making them more appealing to commuters.

Other issues also confronted workers under Cambie Village where the narrow streets made it crucial to stack the tunnels on top of each other in that section rather than side by side.

Despite the technical difficulties, the opening of the line signifies a success story for Woodhead as it was finished two months ahead of schedule and on budget.

As he passed through the bright and gleaming tunnels and glass-enclosed stations — designed to make people feel safe waiting for a train — during a recent test run, Woodhead appeared pleased.

He pointed out the big ventilation fans and reflective tags for firehoses, set at every 60 metres, in the tunnels. He noted the electric beams that pick up anything on the guideway, forcing the train to stop immediately. And he pulled out his cellphone to show that coverage is available along the entire route.

“One of the great things about working on these projects is seeing how things change,” he said. “We’re all pretty happy with it and proud as well.”

The two tunnels, each 2.5 kilometres long, required 30,000 pieces of 1.2-metre long pre-cast concrete. In the end, 350,000 cubic metres of concrete and 40,000 tonnes of reinforced steel were needed to build the entire rapid transit line, which splits into two single tracks at Bridgeport to head to either Richmond-Brighouse or the airport.

When the Canada Line officially opens on Monday, 14 of the two-car trains will be operating during rush hour at three to 3.5-minute intervals. More trains will be added to reduce the time between the trains.

“We’ve had many, many problems but we’ve managed to resolve them all. A lot of it was on my shoulders; not all of it because it was always teamwork,” Woodhead said, but added: “I really enjoy this job and every morning look forward to coming to work.”


  1. Great article on the latest transportation hurdle conquered. Let's just hope there's a way to get from the train station to the Richmond Speed Skating oval without walking!
    - Olympic Proportions

  2. Thanks, Tom. The Bridgeport Station will have feeder buses to go the short distance to the Richmond Olympic Oval. The same is true of many other venues. A few places are within walking distances of a Canada Line station. These are mostly in the downtown core.