Fascinating tunnel building
The new Albula Tunnel is one of the largest projects the Rhaetian Railway has ever implemented. Construction work started in 2015 and the new tunnel between Spinas and Preda is scheduled to be put into operation in 2021. During the whole of that period, on-site experts will be ensuring that everything runs smoothly. One of them is German engineer Jürgen Ebenhög, who originally moved to Switzerland with his family to work on the Gotthard base tunnel.
"That is Saint Barbara, she protects every tunnel building site," says Jürgen Ebenhög, and nods towards the figure in the glass cabinet before tramping further on. His boots sink several centimetres into the ground littered with split slates. The walls are dripping and it gets darker with every step we take. The Allgäu slate is wet and shiny; in front of the wall there is a massive pile of rocks that is gradually taken away every few minutes by a wheel loader. "Allgäu slate is a clay rock which is split into layers when the mountains are created," says the construction engineer picking up a slate. The stone is so soft that the tunnel digger can excavate it with its hammer arm. "We’ll have to blast it in the medium term. But blasting would be too loud here in Preda at the moment and we are too close to the existing tunnel."
Two engineers move to Ticino
And Jürgen Ebenhög should know. He is the construction manager of the section in Spinas, but his office is in Preda. And he lives and breathes tunnel building. Like his wife, the 46-year-old studied construction engineering at the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany. Christine Ebenhög specialised in hydraulic engineering, wastewater technology and environmental topics; Jürgen Ebenhög on geotechnics and hydrogeology. Before the Gotthard base tunnel brought the family to Switzerland, Christine Ebenhög built sewage treatment plants, while her husband drilled tunnels under both the North Sea and the River Elbe. The family moved to Ticino in 2003 when their oldest daughter was just three. After their third child, Christine Ebenhög decided she would go back to work again and, thanks to being a native German speaker, made sure that all contract clauses were implemented correctly on the Gotthard building site. The working environment of their parents has certainly left its mark on the family of now four children: "Just recently we were out on a walk when our oldest daughter gave a lecture about which stone in tunnel construction is best for making concrete," says Christine Ebenhög laughing.
A concern of her father’s too - a man who came to Graubünden after completing construction work on Gotthard and Ceneri. At the waste site just a little further up from the construction site in Preda, he picks up some material in his hand. Jürgen Ebenhög fishes some steel fibre out of the material and immediately picks up the telephone. He talks to geologist Anita Weber about what should happen to the material. When he puts the phone down he says: "Our geologist classifies the material that we bring out of the tunnel – for example to decide whether we can make concrete aggregate out of it or not." On the way back to the building site, Jürgen Ebenhög takes another look at the Toro wheel loader parked at the foot of the waste site. "This wheel loader transports the material from underground, tips it onto the crusher that pulverises it to then tip it onto the conveyor." The building sites in Preda and Spinas work virtually autonomously: a large part of the solid Albula granite will later be made into new construction material such as railway ballast and mineral aggregate for concrete.
«I wanted a creative job.»Jürgen Ebenhög
Back at the building site there is a similar appointment. Together with his colleague Patric Walter, Jürgen Ebenhög appraises the material that the wheel loader has transported and which has thus just come out of the tunnel. Colleagues keep coming past and shaking hands. They know each other – sometimes from other building sites. Italian, Portuguese, Romansh, High German and here and there a smattering of Saxon dialect – Preda is very international these days. "Some colleagues used to work in the former East Germany in uranium mining and now work as demolition experts in the Alps," says Jürgen Ebenhög before he walks off in the direction of the office trailers. Uwe Holstein, Head Site Supervisor, is waiting for him for a meeting. The engineer spends a lot of time at his desk: "In addition to the excavation work, I am also responsible for the quality aspects and good documentation." Initially the German wanted to concentrate on the classical engineering disciplines of constructional steelwork and solid construction as well as statics because of his love of maths. But then he changed his mind: "I decided I still wanted to be creative after all." And in the multi-faceted job of building tunnels, that is exactly what he can do.
But this also means he has to move from one building site to the next every few years. Since his jobs on the Gotthard and Ceneri base tunnel were completed, he has been commuting to Preda. From Monday to Friday he lives in Bergün, and travels home at the weekend. And sometimes his wife and four daughters make the journey from Ticino to come to see him. Then the family enjoys the mountain world around Preda. And in the winter, Jürgen Ebenhög spends a few months at home. Work on the Albula Tunnel has to be suspended because of poor weather conditions. "This is the first site I have been on where there has been a winter break – and the first where I have been involved in avalanche control blasting," says the engineer who then thoughtfully contemplates the snow-covered mountains out of his office window.
Infoarena Albula Tunnel
The new Albula Tunnel project is explained excitingly in the Infoarena in Preda. The red construction site wall provides interesting facts, and offers fun items for people of all ages. There is more in-depth audiovisual information in the pavilion. Tours of the site are also available.