North East Link is the biggest road transport project in Victoria’s history. Roads & Infrastructure catches up with the project team, as well as with the sub-contractor Bothar Boring & Tunnelling and their lifting partner Premier Cranes and Rigging to find out about the latest progress.
North East Link is one of the most ambitious road projects in Victoria’s recent history. With an estimated cost of $16 billion, it’s the single biggest investment in road transport infrastructure the Victorian Government has ever undertaken and one that will finally close the loop with Melbourne’s Metropolitan Ring Road.
The project will fix the missing link between Melbourne’s M80 Ring Road and an overhauled Eastern Freeway, connecting the growing northern and south‐eastern suburbs. Upon the project’s anticipated completion in 2027, Melbourne will have, for the first time, a fully connected orbital freeway network that will provide a route around the city instead of through it.
Moreover, the North East Link will cut travel time between the city’s north and east by up to 35 minutes and take 15,000 trucks off local roads in the north-eastern suburbs every day. It will link key growth areas in the north and east, providing an efficient connection for up to 135,000 vehicles each day and allow travel from Melbourne’s suburbs to the airport without stopping at a single traffic light.
Where it all started
Planning and assessment for North East Link began in 2016 after Infrastructure Victoria identified it as the ‘highest priority infrastructure project in Victoria’ in its 30 Year Infrastructure Strategy.
In October 2017, the five-year Victorian Infrastructure Plan confirmed North East Link as one of several ‘catalyst’ state-shaping infrastructure projects designed to “stimulate economic growth, create jobs and deliver positive, long-term benefits for Victorians.” Investigations into potential corridors for North East Link began in early 2017 and following a detailed assessment of potential benefits and impacts, Corridor-A from the Eastern Freeway at Bulleen to the M80 at Greensborough, was selected as the preferred corridor. The reasoning for the corridor selection was to provide the best opportunity for connections to the existing road network, while providing better connectivity for freight journeys and public transport.
Between late 2017 to early 2019, the project underwent business case studies and environmental effect assessment and planning. When the reference design was finally released by the North East Link Authority in September 2019, it featured a number of firsts: Victoria’s longest road tunnels, Melbourne’s first dedicated express lane busway, and with those, one of the most extensive packages of civil relocation the city had experienced.
CIMIC Group’s CPB Contractors was selected to deliver the early works package, which among other tasks, includes relocating more than 34 kilometres of communications, gas, power, water and sewerage pipes and drains and over 96 other utilities to make way for North East Link.
Assisting CPB Contractors with the early works package on the project is Bothar Boring & Tunnelling, part of the international Bothar Group of Companies with over 30 years’ experience in the tunnelling contracting industry.
Bothar Boring & Tunnelling has been contracted by CPB Contractors to relocate the North East Link (YEMS) line, which runs below Bulleen Road and services thousands of homes and businesses across Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. The line intersects with North East Link at a number of points, so it needs to be moved to make way for North East Link.
The YEMS relocation job, as Bothar Boring & Tunnelling’s Senior Project Manager Ben Eastoe tells Roads & Infrastructure, consists of shaft construction and installation of a new main sewer, using a mini tunnel boring machine (TBM) and pipe jacking method.
Having completed similar works all over the world, Bothar Boring & Tunnelling is a specialist in utility installation using micro tunnelling and other trenchless methods. Already, the company has moved three mini-TBMs to the project, all of which are now active and working under Bulleen to move a 1.8-kilometre section of the sewer to the east of Bulleen Road.
Melbourne-based crane company Premier Cranes and Rigging has been the preferred lifting partner for Bothar Boring & Tunnelling, with the two teams working alongside each other on the project from day one. As Eastoe further adds, the decision to partner with Premier Cranes on such a critical project followed earlier successful collaborations between the two teams.
“Bothar Boring & Tunnelling has used Premier Cranes on a number of previous projects, and we have always found Premier to be a professional organisation,” Eastoe says.
Premier Cranes’ role
For Steve Warton, Chief Executive Officer at Premier Cranes and Rigging, being selected for the project is another step forward in the company’s growth journey.
Premier Cranes has been in the industry for 12 plus years. Within that time, the company has been involved in some of the biggest projects shaping Melbourne – including playing a major role in civil infrastructure works for the West Gate Tunnel and construction of the tunnels’ entry and exit portals.
But how Bothar Boring & Tunnelling came to know and work with Premier Cranes began at one of Melbourne CBD’s busiest locations: Spencer Street, opposite the Southern Cross Station.
“The senior engineer from the project made contact with us and advised they needed our assistance with some short lead time ‘heavy’ lifting, in a ‘tight’ setup location,” says Warton.
As anyone with lifting experience would know, sewer relocation and managing crane setups in the heart of Melbourne CBD is no walk in the park.
Premier Cranes proved their expertise by setting up large cranes within their compound, erected gantries, and placed establishment components in desired locations right in front of the Southern Cross Station. When the site team were ready, they carefully lifted the TBMs into the ground, all the while helping with traffic management and minding the existing overhead and underground services in and around the area.
The Premier Cranes team works with the Bothar Boring & Tunnelling team to recover a mini-TBM.
When Bothar Boring & Tunnelling secured the contract to help with CPB’s early works on the North East Link, Premier Cranes was already their preferred lifting company. From early days on the project, the two companies worked closely to plan and make sure there was a clear passage for Bothar Boring & Tunnelling’s mini-TBMs to be lifted into place.
Warton says Premier Crane’s experience of working on the West Gate Tunnel project was also helpful in understanding the complexities of TBM lifts and legacy service systems in the Melbourne Metropolitan area.
“At one instance on the West Gate project, a 100 year old hand-constructed, brick-lined sewer pipe needed to be intersected to create intersections for new sewer lines. We had to work closely with the head contractor CPBJH JV and be mindful of the existing structures,” Warton says.
“While the Yarra East Main Sewer line is not quite that vintage (originally built in the 1960s), being able to manage such delicate works with our cranes and crews on West Gate Tunnel meant we were confident when North East Link project came along that our team were the right people for the job,” he adds.
Apart from the Yarra East Main Sewer relocations, the early works package on North East Link includes relocating two high voltage transmission towers in Watsonia and continuing to move underground utilities along Greensborough Road.
As of early July, over 1.7 kilometres of gas pipe and 1.5 kilometres of power lines had been installed and the first micro tunnel boring machine had been launched in Balwyn North to relocate watermains under the Eastern Freeway.
The project will also see 19 sports grounds upgraded, as part of a $68 million package, with improved playing surfaces, flood lights and six brand-new accessible pavilions. Upgrades have been completed at Veneto Club in Bulleen and Greensborough College The design for the fast-tracked Bulleen Park and Ride has also been finalised, with work due to begin shortly.
In a major milestone for the project, in June, the Spark consortium comprising WeBuild, GS Engineering and Construction, CPB Contractors, China Construction Oceania, Ventia, Capella Capital, John Laing Investments, DIF and Pacific Partnerships, was selected as the preferred bidder for the tunnelling package, which includes construction of the twin three-lane tunnels and key interchanges for the project.
“We’re now working to negotiate a final contract, ready to share details of their concept design with the community before the end of the year,” Duncan Elliott, CEO for North East Link Projects tells Roads & Infrastructure.
When asked about the challenges the project has posed so far in its design and construction stages, Elliott recalls the extensive planning undertaken on the project.
“A key challenge is how we can provide the most benefit for the community in the project scope and design. A project like North East Link doesn’t come around very often and we want to make the most of the opportunity to get maximum benefit for the community,” he says.
“In response, when planning this massive project, we’ve invested time to understand what else needs to be done to deliver a long- term win for the entire north-east.”
Following the award of the major tunnelling package, the project will also go out to market for other key elements of the project including a massive overhaul of the Eastern Freeway, Melbourne’s first dedicated busway, the completion of the M80 and more than 25 kilometres of new and upgraded walking and cycling paths. Another challenge in the design of North East Link, Elliott says, was the impact years of construction would have on local sports clubs.
“In response, we’re delivering a massive upgrade of sports grounds in the area so teams can relocate during construction and continue to enjoy the sports they love. More than 20,000 players from 34 sporting clubs and associations will benefit from a $68 million investment that includes six new pavilions better grounds, improved lighting, and female-friendly change rooms.”
The project is implementing a number of innovative construction techniques to minimise disruptions for the community and road users. An example of this, as Elliott explains, was demonstrated in the relocations of Watsonia high voltage tower.
“Two existing high voltage towers within the Watsonia Station carpark needed to be moved to allow for North East Link. This required the project team to string new 220kV power lines over Greensborough Road and the Hurstbridge rail line, with a possibility of lengthy closures of both the rail line and Greensborough Road during works,” he says.
“Following significant planning, an innovative solution using a Cradle Block methodology was adopted to allow us to install these power lines while traffic and trains continued uninterrupted.”
The team has also taken into consideration traffic disruption during service relocation work on Greensborough Road, Elliott adds.
“As part of the early works program, we have been working for almost 12 months to relocate significant power (2.1 kilometres) and gas services (2.5 kilometres) on Greensborough Road. Given Greensborough Road is a busy, arterial route, our works have been taking place at night to minimise traffic disruption.
“This involves digging and re-laying the road each night for traffic to resume the following morning. Lane closures take place after peak in the evenings, with crews re- laying the road each morning ready for peak traffic.”
Social and environmental considerations
With the North East Link project located in a built-up urban area, speaking to community over three years has enabled the project team to get a good understanding of how the communities view challenges on the project. By early July, the project had already received 15,750 pieces of community feedback, with two Community Liaison Groups and two Business Liaison Groups representing the interests of the local community during the construction phase.
“Our community hub in Watsonia welcomes people to speak with project team members. This effort to engage community members has been readily taken up, with more than 2,000 people visiting the Watsonia Community Information Hub to date,” says Elliott.
Protecting the Yarra River and surrounding significant sites is a core requirement for North East Link project. Elliott says builders will be required to deliver North East Link in accordance with more than 100 strict Environmental Performance Requirements which cover a range of areas including noise and air quality, vibration, visual impacts, landscaping, and tree and vegetation management.
“North East Link is delivering one of the largest ever tree planting programs for a transport project in Victoria. More than 30,000 trees will be planted for the project with at least two trees planted for each tree removed,” he notes.
In addition to a major program of early works already underway to move utilities out of the path of the tunnels and interchanges, Elliott says the project has undertaken a huge amount of soil testing for this stage of a project.
“We have taken and analysed around 11,000 samples from over 2000 investigation locations across the project including samples at tunnel depth. The extensive testing helps to prepare the project to manage the spoil that will be excavated and helps to understand the geological conditions. Understanding the area’s geology is important so the right machinery can be selected for the project, including the right cutterheads for the massive TBMs that will build the twin road tunnels. Two tunnel boring machines, each over 15 metres in diameter are planned to be used to construct the twin road tunnels.”
Upon its anticipated completion in 2027, North East Link would have created more than 10,000 jobs and provided access to 56,000 more job opportunities for workers in the north-east.
The buses that use the Eastern Freeway are already among the busiest in Melbourne, with six million passenger trips per year and a bus on average every minute in the peak. North East Link will allow buses to travel uninterrupted up to 100km/h along the future busway cutting commute times by up to 30 per cent and improving safety.
North East Link will also complete the long-awaited commuter cycling route to the city along the Eastern Freeway between Chandler Highway and Merri Creek, which is part of 25 kilometres of new and upgraded cycling and walking paths that will be delivered through North East Link.
Elliott is confident about the multi- faceted benefits the project will deliver to Melbourne residents.
“It’s been really exciting seeing innovative solutions being put into place with the ultimate goal of delivering this important piece of infrastructure in a way that minimises disruptions to the local community and those who use these roads each day,” he comments.
For companies like Premier Cranes, the project is another way to be involved in city-shaping projects and showing their capabilities further.
“At Premier Cranes, we follow a strategy built around #TeamLifting, which showcases our company’s culture of helping each member of the team and our clients to achieve the best result. A project like North East Link, for us, is #TeamLifting to the core,” says Warton.
“For our team to be able to work with and help a company like Bothar Boring & Tunnelling to achieve their outcomes for their client as we orchestrate our innovative approach, that is #TeamLifting.
“Premier Cranes are constantly presenting the #TeamLifting notion to the market to enable everyone to feel and realise what it means to work with a tier-one lifting company that’s lifting with a purpose.”
This article was originally published in the July edition of our magazine. To read the magazine, click here.