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Assault on Devil's Slide: A 150-Year Tale of Man Versus Mountain 

Wednesday, May 1 2013

Page 4 of 5

The long days aren't so bad — there's a crisp breeze and ocean view. The pay is meager, but enough so the children don't starve. And after years on the job, the weight of the hammer becomes familiar. No, the hardest part of working on this railroad is the rebuilding. The glory and most of the money go to the bosses, the men at the top of the Ocean Shore Railroad Company. But there's a pride in looking back after hours of pounding spikes and seeing those iron rails stretch back. Seeing the progress.

So it feels like a punch to the kidney, clocking in this morning only to find out that an overnight rockslide has torn apart more than 200 yards of track. There is at least half a day's worth of debris to clear. And after that, the hammer will pound a spike where a spike had already been pounded.

This railroad was supposed to be a marvel, 1,500 volts powering trains down two tracks along the coast, barreling through the mountain at the San Pedro Point tunnel. Then the earthquake hit. And the investors figured their money was better off in some crumbled hotel or restaurant or civic project than in a railroad that keeps breaking. Rebuilding the greatest city in the West offered both moral pleasure and sure profits. The railroad will be single-track now, and the trains will be powered by steam.

But that's all still a long way off. The hammer feels heavier today.

The mountain is under siege. For months, the workers have blasted through it with dynamite and burrowed through it with excavators. They've set up camp, spraying the tunnel walls with concrete and installing bulky ventilation systems. The men are convinced they've figured out the mountain.

But the mountain has unleashed its array of defenses. It flooded the men's equipment with water. It released ungodly tectonic pressures to squeeze the tunnel so that the men had to retreat and suspend their attack for more than a month, until the mountain had no more force to exert. And it ambushed the men with unexpected rock formations.

Today, for instance, is supposed to be a drill-and-blast day. But the rock face was too soft and holes won't stay open. More alarming, blasting into weak rock risks fracturing the surrounding rock, potentially causing the newly opened tunnel face to collapse in on itself. So the huge drilling machine must slowly reverse its way out of the tunnel. Time burns. The mountain holds its ground.

This isn't supposed to happen. There was a plan. Geologists like Doug Hamilton extracted long, tubular rock samples from two dozen or so strategic intervals in the tunnel's path, effectively mapping out the geologic conditions of the mountain. Engineers like Dan Zerga used that data to design support systems based on the varying rock formations expected, with separate specifications for the strongest rock, Category 1, up to the weakest rock, Category 5.

But when the diggers, the Kiewit construction guys, burrowed into the mountain, they were caught off guard. They ran into, say, Category 3 rock and Category 1 rock when they just expected a block of Category 2 rock, and so on. This confused the whole operation.

Support systems had to be switched to match the new conditions. This cost time and money. Kiewit had won the Caltrans contract with a $272 million bid, $50 million cheaper than the next closest offer. But that bid did not account for all this new support construction. So with each new safety structure, Caltrans' bill ballooned.

As the anticipated costs and delays grew, Caltrans cited the unexpected "geologic conditions." Hamilton took offense. Zerga didn't understand it either. Any professional construction outfit, they thought, knew that geologic blueprints were mapped out in intervals, and that a good faith bid would account for the inevitable rock mixtures. Especially when the project employed the design-as-you-go principles of the New Austrian Tunneling Method, which Caltrans' project manager Skip Sowko once described as: "every time a piece is excavated, the mining engineer looks at the rock fractures and the soil types to evaluate what methods to use to support the excavated ground."

But it's all federal funds anyway, so who can complain? The important thing is getting this next machine into the mountain. It inches through the dirt, engine rumbling. Deeper into the mountain. The natural light is gone now. Only a dim yellow glow from lanterns hanging like Christmas lights illuminates the machine's steady progress.

The machine is a roadheader, 50 feet long, and nearly half of that a trunk-like snout. At its tip, a thick steel log covered in spikes — a terror for loose rock. This is the workhorse, responsible for most of the digging.

The machine reaches its foe. The rock face stares back with a sinister silence. The machine strikes. Its spiky log spins with a growl, tearing away at the mountain's gut. The shredding rages on and on, like a boxer on a furious offensive.

Then the crumbling slows. The tumbling rock bits have dwindled to a trickle. The mountain has applied its best defense. The rock face has turned hard.

If the mountain will be conquered, it will bleed every dollar and every day it can out of its conquerer. The men who make the decisions know that there is no more taste for delays, no more time to keep rolling their machines in and out of this hole. The roadheader stays in the game. It grinds away, inches at a time, with solid rock and man's historical failures standing before it. But behind this machine, there's now limitless money and generations' worth of technological innovation — 150 years of human progress driving it forward, grinding the rocks and the failures to dust. Until there is nothing more ahead, only daylight, and it is almost as if there was never anything in this long hole to begin with.

About The Author

Albert Samaha


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