Going underground: Reporter Ellena Cruse experiences what it is like to go tunnelling

PUBLISHED: 09:00 17 January 2016

Journalist Ellena Cruse visitedTunnelling and Underground Construction Academy (TUCA) in Ilford and was shown round by Melvyn Parr

Journalist Ellena Cruse visitedTunnelling and Underground Construction Academy (TUCA) in Ilford and was shown round by Melvyn Parr


I spend hours playing trains with my “choo choo” mad toddler.

Melvyn Parr explaining about emergency exit proceduresMelvyn Parr explaining about emergency exit procedures

His elaborate designs put my single circuits to shame, so when I was offered the opportunity to lay real track, I thought it would be a great way to bring something new to the train table.

As I entered the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy (TUCA), Lugg Approach, Manor Park, I was struck by the gravity of the building.

With sweeping corridors and concrete tunnels it would make a fantastic lair for a James Bond villain, but instead of being greeted by an evil plotter intent on world destruction I was met by man who was passionate about teaching and improving lives.

Melvyn Parr is tunnelling project manager for the UK and, as well as training apprentices, individuals and companies, he has equipped more than 1,900 unemployed people with the skills to get a job in construction.

Ellena with an road diggerEllena with an road digger

“It’s important to remove the obstacles that stop people getting work,” he said.

“When you are on Jobseekers’ Allowance you don’t have money for extra things, so I let people on the course use a pair of work boots from our cupboard and they get two meals a day prepared on site.

“A man came in to ask us about a course on Friday. He was really committed and enthusiastic and when I found out he had size 16 feet, I rang all my suppliers and managed to get a pair for him in for the following Tuesday.”

Melvyn explains that his course isn’t training for training’s sake, but given after gaps in the market have been identified.

Ellena sitting in the diggerEllena sitting in the digger

Learners won’t be left by themselves but supported, and if they work hard and show the right attitude there is potential to be linked up with a job.

“We do research into what the sector needs and it was forecasted that we would need 3,500 tunnellers at any one moment in time,” he added

“We have 500 in the UK so it doesn’t take an algebra degree to work out we are short.

“Potentially we have 20 years of tunnelling projects in this country so new people need to be trained now.”

Patrick Bannon who trained on the course and now works at TUCAPatrick Bannon who trained on the course and now works at TUCA

Before entering the tunnels I had to cram my curly hair into a hard hat and don a hi-vis jacket. I was just thankful they didn’t ask me to wear a boiler suit.

As our feet echoed through training rooms and demonstration areas, I was confronted with tunnelling scenarios and millions of pounds worth of equipment.

After having a go in off-road machinery – something I was very excited about – I didn’t think the tour could get much better.

But it did.

Some of the tunnels in the training centreSome of the tunnels in the training centre

Melvyn took me into a darkened tunnel and showed me how to evacuate in an emergency procedure.

“We run a course on tunnel entry and emergency procedures, which has now become an industry requirement for those working in tunnelling conditions.”

“Participants will start by building handrails, but we will get a call from above ground and then all hell breaks loose.”

Firecrackers go off and the tunnel is plunged into darkness to simulate an explosion – even the hi-vis jacket of the person in front of you disappears.

Tunnelling and Underground Construction AcademyTunnelling and Underground Construction Academy

As if that wasn’t enough to make you take things seriously, the smoke machine emits something sinister and an eerie hissing sound can be heard.

Melvyn tells me to get an MSA mouth box on as quickly as possible.

This device converts your breath into reusable air to give you enough time to hopefully exit the tunnel.

If you panic and breathe quickly it will only last for a few minutes, but if you pace yourself it could last for 20 minutes.

Melvyn Parr outside the TUCAMelvyn Parr outside the TUCA

Never has the phrase keep calm and carry on been so aptly applied.

The simulation gives a hard-hitting message and wouldn’t have the same weight if issued theoretically in a class room.

I didn’t have to be told twice – always have your MSA on your person.

Melvyn added: “People are fixed in a mind set and don’t often appreciate how many different jobs there are in tunnelling, from spray cement lining and crane operating to track laying. You have the same jobs underground as on top, it is not just about digging a hole.

Journalist Ellena Cruse in a tunnelJournalist Ellena Cruse in a tunnel

“I am so proud as it has made a huge difference to people’s lives and a former student spoke to me to say thank you as he is now employed, his mum was proud of him and he could buy his girlfriend things.

“When I go home I have a smile on my face as it really has turned people lives around.”

For more information on tunnelling and construction course visit,

Case study: Patrick Bannon 52, Romford

I was unemployed for seven months so when I had the chance to come here to learn plant mechanics, tunnelling safety and steel fixing I took it seriously.

You can’t just learn it and forget it as you need the information to do the job safely, it’s a legal requirement so I did lots of revision.

Now I have a wallet full of qualifications and I have a lot of respect for the people who gave me this opportunity. When I was offered the job of course support worker I bit their hand off.

It’s such an interesting job and I test equipment to make sure it is safe and do demonstrations for the students.

I am a former forklift driver and find the construction course really interesting.

I have made so many friends while I have been here and we go out and socialise together. If you show commitment and want to do it, then they will help you.

TUCA: The Facts:

–TUCA was established in Ilford in September 2011 to meet demand for people with specialist skills in tunnelling, underground construction and infrastructure.

–It has trained more than 12,000 people in key construction skills over the lifetime of the Crossrail project as well as providing training for other construction projects.

–TUCA is a large building to reflect the scale of underground working conditions. Its facilities replicate the key areas of a fully-automated tunnelling project. This includes a train, a chamber for spray concrete lining and a large underground construction workshop as well as teaching rooms and a test centre.

–Crossrail worked closely with industry partners, professional bodies and other organisations to ensure the facilities and curriculum at TUCA would meet the current and future needs of the industry. It has created the Tunnel Safety Card qualification – now an industry requirement for those working in a tunnelling environment.

–TUCA also offers pre-employment courses to get those who are not yet job-ready on the path towards employment. More than 1,900 people have taken these pre-employment courses.

–Crossrail and its contractors also hold days where trainees can meet and hear about the latest jobs.

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