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London Starts Digging Massive Transit Tunnels


The history of the city of London dates back to the Romans and beyond. So, when you start digging massive tunnels beneath that place, it's always going to be interesting. And that's just what's about to happen.

MAYOR BORIS JOHNSON: I hereby declare Ada and Phyllis unleashed.


LYDEN: That was the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, at the unveiling of two massive digging machines this week in London. The city already has a huge underground rail network, the Tube, but these two giant machines are being moved below to start boring beneath the city to create some more rail lines as part of a major project linking the area west of the city to the east. We're joined on the line now by NPR's Philip Reeves in London. Good morning, Phil.


LYDEN: Phil, tell us about exactly what's going on underground. And, please, who are Phyllis and Ada?

REEVES: Well, Phyllis is Phyllis Pearson, who created the "A-Z of London," the little book of maps that every tourist used to carry in their knapsack or in their back pocket. And Ada was Ada Lovelace, an early computer scientist. These names were given to these gigantic boring machines by a vote from the British public.


REEVES: As for the project, it's the biggest construction project in Europe. And the idea is to build a rail line that runs from the western suburbs, including Heathrow Airport, through London itself and out to the eastern suburbs in Essex. It stretches over some 70 miles and the sections that run through central London go underground. Now, anyone who's jammed themselves into a London underground train in rush hour knows that this city's transport system is seriously overcrowded. So when Crossrail opens, it's expected to carry some 20 million people a year, and that should go some way towards easing the strain.

LYDEN: And Phil, as you're well aware, Londoners have been waiting for this project to start for a very long time. And we have a clip here of London Mayor Boris Johnson trying to rekindle some of the excitement at the machines Phyllis and Ada's unveiling earlier this week.

JOHNSON: We're about to unleash these chthonic, chthonic deities, titanic worms, voracious predators of the Pleistocene clay or London, these vast nibbling Nibelung(ph)...


JOHNSON: ...who will add so hugely to the wealth of our city. And where - this is the point where Ada and Phyllis lead today; tomorrow, tens of millions of Londoners will follow.

LYDEN: Boy, so maybe he should go down to the Globe Theater.

REEVES: Well, yes. He used to be a journalist and I think it's showing.


REEVES: No, but, you know, they are amazing machines. I mean, they're one and a half times the length of a football field. They move at the pace of the average garden snail. And they generate enough force apparently to lift nearly 3,000 London taxis - if they had to do that, which they don't, of course. They've got a team on board, about 20 people. They have a canteen in there and restrooms.

And the first of these about to start digging, but there'll be eight more in the end. And they're all going to, as Boris Johnson puts, nibble their way under the city.

LYDEN: Now, of course, there's already a huge ancient spaghetti underneath London - pretty crowded, all the Tube lines that already exist. How do they make a path?

REEVES: We'll, they're going to slowly weave their way - I imagine rather so delicately...


REEVES: ...around the existing underground lines. And that's not all that's down there. You know, it's pretty crowded there. You've got sewers, you've got various utility pipes and wires and foundations of building - ancient and modern. Perhaps even, it's said, some secret Ministry of Defense underground bunkers - although no one is talking about that.

LYDEN: Oh, I should think so. Phil, as we know, London dates back to Roman times. Are they expecting to make any interesting archaeological finds?

REEVES: Yeah. The lines run along the northern edge of Roman and Medieval London and there's a lot of stuff down there. So Crossrail has got a team of archeologists and it says this is one of the most extensive archaeological programs ever undertaken in the U.K. And they've already started finding stuff during construction - the construction they've already done - and it's pretty amazing stuff, too.

At Liverpool Street Station, they're building a new ticketing hall that's on the site of the burial ground of Bedlam. That's the notorious psychiatric hospital that opened in the 14th century, where patients were kept in manacles and Londoners use to pay a penny to go and gawk at them.

Archaeologists there have found burial remains and they're eventually expecting to find six bodies per cubic meter. Skeletons are being analyzed to see what can be learned about people's diets, about disease back then, and then they're going to be reburied in a working cemetery.

LYDEN: Phil, what's the impact going to be on tourists come the Olympics?

REEVES: Well, if you happen to be in that part of London, you might find your room is rattling a little bit. Crossrail say there won't be any serious damage. There might be some cracks to plaster and doors might jam. But they say they're very experienced with this sort of thing, and it's very rare for it to cause significant structural damage. So, don't worry. Your house won't fall down when you're at the games.

LYDEN: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in London on a major new railway project now underway underground in London. Thanks so much, Phil.

REEVES: You're welcome.


LYDEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.