Tunnel Vision

Challenge follows an LTA tunnel engineer who has his eye on delivering the Thomson-East Coast Line safely.
The tunnels are not “dark and slimy” like what people usually imagine, but brightly lit and ventilated with fans and vents, says Mr Toh.
1Mr Toh speaks with contractors. The hours spent underground with them have created strong friendships over the years. 2. After the tunnels are completed, the 30m hole will be filled up and the site will become a green field again. 3. Mr Toh inspects for anomalies in the tunnel. 4. He chats with the tunnel workers while in the passenger hoist.

Mr Elgin Toh bores for a living – through sand, soil and granite, that is. Every day, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) engineer descends 30 metres (about 10 storeys) into a huge hole in the ground to build part of the upcoming Thomson-East Coast Line (TEL), expected to open in stages from 2019.

As Senior Project Engineer (Tunnel), he leads the digging of 6.2km of tunnels that will link two TEL MRT stations, Woodlands and Woodlands South. This involves driving tunnel-boring machines safely through the earth, and supervising explosions to blast through the area’stough granite.

The down-to-earth engineer usually starts his day by joining the tunnel workers for morning warm-up exercises, referring to the Bangladeshi, Burmese, Indian, Chinese, European and Thai workers as “his brothers and friends”. “I want them to see me as more of a friend, not the authority,” says the 30-year-old. Friendly relations help build synergy, he shares. Since October 2015, his team has bored 6km of tunnels. 

5. Mr Toh reminds workers to take care of their mental well-being, on top of their physical safety. 6. He checks the explosives needed to blast through the tough granite. 7. Every morning, Mr Toh inspects the facilities, such as this equipment used for emergency rescue operations.

One of the challenges of his job is being on standby 24/7 in case of any abnormal readings or sudden movements in the ground. He once received a call to go back onsite at 3am, and also sacrificed his Valentine’s Day dinner this year to troubleshoot an unexpected overflow of slurry (muddy water), which had seeped onto a nearby road. Thankfully his wife, who’s also a tunnel engineer, understands the demands of his job. For Mr Toh, the “adrenaline rush” from “fighting fire” excites him and pushes him to stay on the ball.

While the tunnel’s confined space, noise, dust and heat do not make for the most comfortable working environment, Mr Toh enjoys heading to work to see the tunnel grow in length, metre by metre, every day.

9. Mr Toh joins workers for morning warm-ups daily. Having picked up some Bengali from them, he has taught them Mandarin too. 10. Climbing and walking is all part of a tunnel engineer’s work. 11. Besides being on-site, Mr Toh visits nearby schools and residents to address their concerns. 12. To keep fit, he exercises during lunch hour.
“It’s akin to watching your child growing up and eventually graduate,” says the enthusiastic engineer, who is about to welcome his first child later this year. He hopes to introduce his child to his work and show him or her that “Daddy helped to build this MRT line” and made a difference to the country in his own way.
  • POSTED ON
    May 12, 2017
  • TEXT BY
    Tay Qiao Wei
  • PHOTOS BY
    Norman Ng
  • ART DIRECTION BY
    Yip Siew Fei
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