Watch: Parisian engineer only woman on City Rail Link tunnel boring machine

It’s the ultimate case of une femme in Nouvelle-Zelande: Marine Barthomeuf is the only woman in a crew of 12 people in charge of the new tunnel boring machine drilling New Zealand’s largest transport infrastructure project.

The Parisian-born engineer, 26, did today’s honours at a gathering which included a Crown minister, city officials, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei tangata and other guests to christen that machine, swinging the Champagne bottle at the machine’s(TBM) launch.

Dubbed Dame Whina Cooper, the German-designed tunnel boring machine was built in China.

She has a crucial role on the $4.4 billion City Rail Link, which will create 3.45km tunnels from Britomart to Mt Eden stations.

“I will be the only woman on the TBM,” Barthomeuf said. She is stationed in a control room towards the front of the 130m-long white and red giant, about to drill up to 42m beneath Auckland to create the separate rail tunnels.

“There are very few women working in this field. I will be one of the shift engineers for the TBM. There will be three shifts working seven days a week and 24 hours without stopping,” she said of the ground-breaking job, running the specially built machine. It has a 7.15m diameter spinning or revolving cutting head to slice underground.

Father Chris Denham of Auckland’s Catholic Cathedral on Friday blessed the machine, seeking protection from St Barbara, patron saint of all tunnellers, miners and underground workers.

Specialist German manufacturer Herrenknecht built the machine at its factory in Guangzhou. The same business designed and built Alice, the TBM used to construct Auckland’s Waterview motorway tunnel.

“I will take all the parameters – we get data from the TBM to make sure it’s functioning correctly,” Barthomeuf said, praising the level of experience of the crew she will work with.

Asked if it would be noisy or silent on the machine, she said: “Quite quiet”.

All workers have specialist breathing equipment in case of emergencies and undergo health and safety training courses of at least two days before being allowed to enter the underground tunnels.

Although the specialist engineer is working for the Link Alliance, she is from the French-headquartered company Vinci Construction Grands Projets, a giant in the field of rail transport projects and infrastructure.

Link Alliance chairman Pierre Bourgeois and project director Francois Dudouit are also from Vinci but also employed by the Link Alliance on the project, due to finish by 2024.

In 2019, the Newmarket-headquartered business dominated by French executives won the contract to deliver the tunnels, stations and systems integration for the City Rail Link.

“I’ll be working seven days a week and 12-hour shifts,” Barthomeuf said, standing with dozens of other orange fluorescent-coated workers at the 24m high Mt Eden tunnel portal site this morning.

The machine was started up Friday morning after Transport Minister Michael Woods, Mayor Phil Goff, CRL chief executive Sean Sweeney and Link Alliance project director Francois Dudouit climbed aboard.

At exactly 8am, Woods and Goff entered the TBM’s control room and pressed the button to start it, allowing its cutter head to make ceremonial revolutions. It won’t be until the middle of this month that the head starts revolving and the continuous shift works begin.

Barthomeuf said initially, the machine would cut 15m of tunnel a day but that would rise to 20m a day once it was in full working mode.

Woods joked before starting the machine about pushing reverse and sending it “to get light rail to Mt Roskill” – a reference to the Government’s long-awaited plans for that job, yet to get under way.

Goff said the machine would be a gamechanger for Auckland.

Barthomeuf arrived in New Zealand in March last year so said she had missed the long-term Paris lockdown.

She will work 12-hour-a-day shifts in seven-day rosters: either 7am-7pm or 7pm-7am, with her shifts changing from night to day regularly.

After a seven-day shift in daytime hours, she will have three days off in a row but a seven-day nighttime shift will get her an extra day to make it four days off in a row.

She lives about 10 minutes from the site in a place she said was quiet enough to enable her to sleep during daytime hours but confessed: “I need new curtains”.

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