WestConnex: Connecting the west

Terry Chapman, Project Director of WestConnex Stage One, talks about the immense first phase of the multi-billion-dollar project, the challenges ahead and the innovations that will help leave a lasting legacy.Earmarked for multiple developments and economic growth, Sydney’s expanding west is one of the city’s major infrastructure talking points these days.

The Australian and NSW governments are already funding a 10-year, $3.6 billion road investment program for the city’s west – the Western Sydney Infrastructure Plan.

Another key investment in the state capital is WestConnex – an integrated transport plan to ease congestion, create new jobs and connect communities to western Sydney.

The wider $16.8 billion WestConnex project involves construction of a 33-kilometre motorway, of which two thirds is underground. Providing a subterranean link between Sydney’s M4 and M5, WestConnex will create a seamless motorway without traffic lights by the time it’s completed in 2023.

The immense scope of the project is put into perspective by the fact it has its own ministerial portfolio – something not so dissimilar to when a Minister for the Olympics was appointed prior to the Sydney 2000 Games.

Given the sheer size of the multi-billion-dollar undertaking, WestConnex consists of six design and construction projects. Two of those projects comprise the crucial first stage – the M4 Widening and M4 East.

Terry Chapman, Project Director of WestConnex Stage One, talks to Roads & Civil Works Magazine about the logistical challenges involved in the first phase of the WestConnex project, the major milestones already achieved and the innovations that will help etch this mammoth undertaking into the history books.

Mr. Chapman says the size of the project has posed a major challenge from the outset – the first stage of the project is essentially two projects in one, including a number of site restrictions given its location spread across a number of residential areas.

“On M4 East, we’ve got 10 construction sites, four tunnel sites and six civil sites – a major challenge is coordinating all of those construction activities,” he says.

“Secondly, it’s built underneath densely populated and heavy traffic areas. Construction needs to also accommodate regular traffic without impacting people.

“Thirdly, we have a very short-term construction phase,” adds Mr. Chapman, citing the M4 Widening’s projected opening in mid-2017 and the M4 East’s anticipated completion in 2019.

The M4 Widening involves widening the existing M4 motorway to four lanes in each direction for eight kilometres between Church Street, Parramatta and Homebush Bay Drive.

A CPB Contractors (formerly Leighton Contractors) and Rizzani De Eccher Joint Venture is undertaking the design and construct contract, with many major components needing to be completed within a short timeframe.

One such challenge already overcome is the widening of the Granville viaduct and other bridges for approximately 2.5 kilometres, which opened to traffic earlier this year. “We’re working in a densely populated area with multiple utilities and services, which have impacted both residents and construction. Additionally, we set up a purpose-built casting yard on site to purpose-build the 138 100-tonne beams for the viaduct,” says Mr. Chapman. “They’ve all been erected and the viaduct is up and running, which has been a significant milestone on the project.” Many sections of the M4 Widening are complete and now in service, including a bridge over the Duck River and new G-ramp, which is creating direct access from the southbound Homebush Bay Drive to the M4 westbound.

Perhaps one of the most complex engineering challenges on the first stage of WestConnex is the tunnelling phase on the M4 East – a feat of construction requiring significant logistical management, planning and design, given its location in the heart of the Sydney metropolitan area.

A CPB Contractors, Samsung C&T Corporation and John Holland Joint Venture (CPBSJH) is undertaking the M4 East section of stage one, with major tunnelling work commencing mid-2016.

This stage comprises extending the M4 Motorway between Homebush and Haberfield via Concord through roughly 5.5 kilometres of twin motorway tunnels, including on and off-ramps.

The tunnels will be three lanes in each direction, at a height of 5.3 metres and paved using a continuously reinforced concrete pavement. “The geology of the site is quite good, but the main challenge has been getting all the planning and design approvals in place,” explains Mr. Chapman. “It’s a fairly complex process, especially as were coming at this tunnel from many different areas so as to minimise the disruption to the public.”

Seventeen roadheaders are currently working on the tunnelling phase, with another five set to commence on site in the coming months.

While the construction phases of WestConnex Stage One are complex and immense, it is the focus on training, safety and the environment that make it a standout infrastructure project for Australia.

Up-skilling the workforce

More than 5000 workers have been involved in the WestConnex project in the past 12 months, with roughly 10,000 jobs anticipated to be created by project end, including multiple opportunities for apprentices and young people.

This emphasis on job creation is reinforced by the WestConnex Training academy.

The purpose-built facility in Homebush is delivering training to more than 1500 workers, including at least 400 apprentices and trainees, during construction.

Mr. Chapman says the facility and wider WestConnex project are providing unique work opportunities to unemployed or disadvantaged youth, as well as Indigenous workers or individuals looking to transfer their skills into other fields.

The academy is also being used as a means to up-skill workers on specific machines and techniques, and, in turn, influence some of the sustainability measures employed onsite. A shotcrete simulator machine, for instance, is being used at the training academy to help improve the application technique and subsequently reduce the amount of shotcrete waste on site.

A major focus for the training academy is on-the-job training, and the roadheaders are playing a central role in this.

Thirteen of the roadheaders on the M4 East have been fitted with operator cabins which allow for dual occupation – something Mr. Chapman says hasn’t been done for tunnelling operations in Australia before.

The modified cabs are the brainchild of the CPBSJH team. The cabs are roughly 50 per cent larger, and allow for training to be carried out and subsequently meet demand for the large number of operators required for the project.

Mark McLean, CPBSJH Plant Manager, says with tunnelling for the M4 East coinciding with other Sydney tunnel projects, and a shift in demand from mining to infrastructure, it’s vital that the project has the skilled operators needed to meet the construction timelines. “While it hasn’t been done before, modifying the cabins for training meant we could also consider other innovations in design, which will lead to five-star conditions for roadheader operators using these machines,” he says.

An Australian based cabin design and manufacture firm developed the new cabs to ensure Australian Standard compliance was met during the building process.

Not only do the new cabs promote training opportunities, they also feature improved visibility, increased structural integrity, reduction in noise and vibration, as well as fully ergonomic seat adjustments.

“We’ve been able to make so many improvements to the design that the Japanese roadheader manufacturer we’ve been working with is now considering the dual cab as a potential export standard for all new machines,” adds Mr. McLean.

Mr. Chapman says the roadheader training gives different skilled machine operators the chance to increase their skill-set. Take mining machine operators, for instance – while not entirely the same machines, some of the concepts translate well.

Sustainability and safety at the forefront

Both the M4 Widening and M4 East are aiming for an Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia rating of at least ‘Excellent’ for the design and construction phases. “We do have a range of other sustainability targets we want to achieve,” explains Mr. Chapman. “One of the key things I’m proud of is the installation of different LED lighting in the tunnel.”

He says electricity is one of the biggest consumables for tunnels, and the installation of LED lighting will provide some significant benefits to energy use and the environment.

Repurposing the significant amounts of spoil from tunnel operations has also been a key environmental consideration for the WestConnex Stage One team. “There are a lot of resources on site we want to recycle, and the spoil itself is good quality. That’s going to be used in some land developments around the area,” says Mr. Chapman.

The team is also prioritising the treatment and reuse of groundwater from the tunnel during construction and operation.

Like any project involving extensive underground excavation, safety has been at the forefront for WestConnex Stage One. Because of the significant amount of time workers will spend underground during the project’s tunnelling phase, safety and communication technology previously only used in underground mines is being employed during construction – an Australian first.

North Ryde-based company MST Global is supplying its innovative safety and communication technology to the workers on M4 East and another WestConnex project – the New M5.

Communications technology in tunnels has previously been restricted to two-way radios over low bandwidth radios. However, MST Global’s wireless devices, such as mine phones and tracking tags, work using a ruggedised Wi-Fi network and optic fibre backbone. The extensive communications package includes mine phones, tracking tags for workers and equipment, data enabling devices on machinery such as the roadheaders, personal lighting devices and wireless network switches.

The technology allows the WestConnex team to collect data in real-time on aspects of its plant, such as the amount of downtime recorded on a roadheader.

Mr. Chapman says much of the equipment and technology used in the tunnel component of the build is fit-for-purpose, and the calibre of the contractor and its own on-site management systems and safety processes is helping to drive this well-oiled machine. “CPBSJH are tier-one contractors who have got systems and learnings from previous projects they’ve used to complete this particular project,” he asserts.

While WestConnex Stage One is well into construction, it is the communication with the public that Mr. Chapman says has been of the utmost significance for the project.

As major construction commenced on the project, the WestConnex communications team has kept the public well informed of the changes to their area.

“Over 100,000 cars drive by our site each day, and there are 6000 residential homes nearby. The community team has had to be very meticulous about the works that have been happening and have been very clear in how it communicates this to the public,” says Mr. Chapman.

Not only has the public been well informed, but Mr. Chapman says the benefits of the wider WestConnex project will be felt for years to come. “WestConnex will deliver more than $20 billion in benefits to New South Wales and small businesses as well as Australian suppliers and manufacturing companies.”

Up to 18 hectares of open space and 14 kilometres of new cycle and walkways are being created as part of the project. More than half of that open space will be used for new parkland at the old Rozelle Rail Yards.

“Ten thousand trucks a day will be taken off Parramatta Road and overall traffic on sections of that busy road will be more than halved once the M4 East opens in 2019,” says Mr. Chapman. “By 2031, with the benefits of a completed WestConnex, 40 minutes will be cut from an average peak journey between Parramatta and Sydney Airport.

“This is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Australia’s history.”

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