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Urban Planning

The Big Boring Breakthrough for Vancouver’s New Rapid Transit Line

Two tunnelling machines have arrived at their last stop for the Broadway Subway.

Christopher Cheung 10 May 2024The Tyee

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on X @bychrischeung.

Each weighs about one million kilograms, as much as 333 elephants. Each stretches 150 metres long, five blue whales from tip to tail.

Meet Elsie and Phyllis, the massive, cylindrical tunnel-boring machines excavating the pair of eastbound and westbound tunnels for the Broadway Subway, an extension of Metro Vancouver’s SkyTrain network.

The duo has just completed a journey they began in fall 2022. Their arrivals at each station have occasionally been dramatic, their rows of teeth cracking through the rubble.

On April 26, Elsie’s rotating cutterhead broke into the Arbutus Station, the western terminus of the subway’s current phase, joining Phyllis, which had arrived a month earlier.

A large cylindrical machine sits in a construction site against a wall covered in orange tarp. In the foreground are construction workers in hard hats and orange and yellow vests.
Elsie, named after Vancouver-born engineer Elsie MacGill, waits at Broadway-City Hall Station. Photo courtesy of the BC Ministry of Transportation via Flickr.
Two workers in fluorescent yellow construction hats and white helmets walk with their backs to the camera in a large grey concrete tunnel. A large white pipe spans across the top of the tunnel and several thinner pipes run to the workers’ right.
A completed section of tunnel of the 5.7-kilometre line. Photo courtesy of the BC Ministry of Transportation via Flickr.

Elsie is named after Elsie MacGill, born in Vancouver, who was the first woman in the world to earn an aeronautical engineering degree and the first woman in Canada to receive a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. She was known as the Queen of the Hurricanes for her work on the fighter aircraft of the same name during the Second World War, even celebrated in a comic book.

Phyllis is named after Canadian nurse Phyllis Munday. She founded the first Girl Guides troop in B.C. and was a mountaineer known for exploring and documenting the Coast Mountains and Mount Waddington.

An elevated view of a row of several raised concrete platforms for the future Broadway Subway line that run alongside train tracks to their right. A yellow construction crane is to the left of the platforms. It’s a bright winter day.
The SkyTrain goes west: elevated guidelines for the Millennium Line extension stretching away from the Great Northern Way-Emily Carr Station, where the tracks will eventually plunge underground. Photo courtesy of the BC Ministry of Transportation via Flickr.
An underground construction site is flanked by two steep concrete walls on both sides, with yellow horizontal piping running across the back wall flanked by two pairs of vertical cylinders. Higher up in the background, an older brown brick building looms against a white sky.
Seventeen metres below street level, construction during the summer of 2023 on the Mount Pleasant Station. Photo courtesy of the BC Ministry of Transportation via Flickr.

Concrete strikes and extra precautions delayed the project’s initial late-2025 completion.

The Broadway Subway — with a price tag of $2.83 billion funded by the province, the federal government and the City of Vancouver — is intended to open in early 2026.

The rapid transit line is being built to ease the traffic of the well-ridden 99 B-Line bus, which services the busy corridor of offices and medical services on and around Broadway, Vancouver’s largest employment centre outside of its downtown.

The first phase of the subway terminates at the Arbutus Station, with plans for another phase to extend the line to the University of British Columbia, though funding is yet to be confirmed.

In the meantime, Elsie and Phyllis are being taken away to be dismantled.  [Tyee]

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