Visiting Cruachan power station

The railway is one of the biggest users of energy in the UK. Recently I had the chance to visit Cruachan Power station to see where some of that energy is generated at peak times.

DRAX took over ownership and operations in January 2019 of the hydro electric power station used to provide additional power to the grid during surges. Surges happen during peak power usage times such as when the majority of people commute and get home, start popping on their domestic appliances to make tea ( tea= a hot beverage made with tea leaves or a full meal depending which part of the UK you are from), wash & dry clothes and be entertained by a variety of electrical items.

It was a really enjoyable visit. As well as seeing the operation I was interested to hear the history of the Tunnel Tigers. Many of these men came from the land of some of my forefathers, Donegal in Ireland. They were known for their hard working attitude and excellent organisational skills.

I wanted to know more about what it was like working in those tunnels. Working in rail infrastructure I am familiar with the horror stories of people being treated like an expendable commodity during the Victorian era of intensive railway building. We view those attitudes as abhorrent and out of touch with current attitudes to safety. But what of the interim times between post war rebuilding of Britain and the advent of current health & safety legislation?

Modern tunnel projects I have worked with in the UK and internationally use tunnel boring machines and have extensive safety management systems. They have comprehensive mitigation in place for the safety of workers and the stability of the new or existing structure.

I was the sponsor of Borders Railway which has 2 notable tunnels which needed refurbishment in order to reopen the railway line. Bowshank tunnel had already had a partial collapse in the 1950s and feelings ran high about working on the tunnel.

The Borders Railway project was challenging technically and logistically with a mostly rural location, limited access and requirement for huge amounts of materials. Tragically it was not without too high a human cost. Feelings ran high because during that project one man lost his life and several others were hurt, some seriously. High risk activities rightly made people anxious for the safety of the team and Bowshank certainly did that.

Graham Bickerdike in his 2015 article in the Rail Engineer wrote a great article describing the history and the challenges we had to overcome at Bowshank. The technical challenge of carrying out works was one aspect that concerned us. The aspect that kept us awake though was concern about the tunnel stability whilst carrying out excavation works to put in the slab track.

The passenger experience of Bowshank Tunnel passes in a flash.It was not so during construction. The site was managed as a remote micro site and visitors were restricted. They had to undergo additional safety briefings, be accompanied at all times, wear full PPE and could only visit at specific points in the construction schedule. Visiting the site during the excavation and the concrete spraying of the tunnel you could not help but be conscious of how far it felt to the outside for those working inside it.

We all slept more soundly once we completed the tunnel works at Bowshank and the other tunnel at Torwoodlee. That may sound trite but it was the reality of working to refurbish potentially volatile Victorian structures on a project where people had been hurt, despite extensive efforts to prevent harm.

Since working on Borders Railway I have spoken to many audiences about the lessons we learned on health, safety & well being and what more can and needs to be done to prevent further harm to our railway family. Safety leadership has become a core part of more than my work, it has become a part of me. That has generated a thirst for understanding and perspectives from industries.

What I wanted to understand at Cruachan was how the conditions had been for the Tunnel Tigers in a time period that spans the post war generation and now. It was constructed in 1959, 15 years before the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

The men who worked there tell their own story at the Cruachan Visitors Centre. They certainly had what we would now call PPE (Personal, Protective Equipment). It consisted of a hard hat made from compacted cardboard and a pair of Wellington boots. The price of the Wellington boots was deducted from their salaries. Not that they complained as the Tunnel Tigers were being paid £110 per week when average salaries where only £10 per week. Danger money? Most certainly it was.

The men described the environment as terrifying. Dynamite and detonators were carried in the same vehicle not only with each other but also with the men traveling in and out of the chasm they were creating in the mountainside of Ben Cruachan.

The cavity they were working on would be filled, within minutes of a shift starting, with smoke, particle debris, chemicals and plumes of dust susceptible to ignition.

They worked shifts ranging from 12 hours to 36 hours. Blasting, digging, excavating and removing the spoil. A multitude of joiners shoring it up as they delved further and further into the mountain. To get any sense of the enormity of their task you need only look in the machine hall which looks like it could comfortably host a thunderbird vehicle.

Men who worked in it have been filmed telling their stories of working in there as young apprentices. The footage makes a great addition to the visitor centre. Human stories are endlessly appealing and bring the engineering tasks to life.

Sadly not everyone did live to tell their story. It surprised me that despite construction starting within relatively recent times that 36 men were killed during the 6 years of building Cruachan. 15 inside the mountain and 21 above ground. Many more died or suffered as a result of injuries or occupational health issues such as emphysema. Their number are undocumented and uncounted as it was not a requirement at that time.

As my own industry takes part in Rail Safety Week 2019 I reflect on the men of Cruachan who never went home again. I feel a deep sadness for the men and women I have worked with who never went home or went home changed forever. I also acknowledge the progress we make every year towards safer working conditions for the railway family and look forward to when anyone getting hurt building infrastructure is consigned to history books.

”Bickerdike, G,(2015) ‘The trouble causer’ available at  https://www.railengineer.co.uk/2015/09/11/trouble-causer-the-story-of-bowshank-tunnel/. Accessed 20th June