Quick-fire questions: A Q&A with Tom Ireland, project director Auckland City Rail Link, Aurecon

Tom has dedicated his career to directing major infrastructure projects through all phases, from initial feasibility through construction, and successful operation. His strong leadership as a project director has been showcased on both the City Rail Link and Western Ring Route – SH20 Waterview Connection, the two largest transport infrastructure projects to date in New Zealand. Tom was also project director for the Northern Corridor Improvements.

What are you most excited about seeing happening in your field in the future?

Tunnelling safety has improved significantly over the last 20 years with closed-face TBM tunnelling (providing continuous support to the ground) along with significant improvement in cost certainty for clients. Currently tunnel lining construction is largely the manual erection of concrete segments and further automation and new lining materials would allow a significant reduction in construction duration and associated cost. Further reductions in tunnel costs will see increased undergrounding of city infrastructure which will improve the environment and provide more surface space for housing and recreational spaces.

What is something significant you’ve learned on the job that you wish someone had told you at the start?

Tunnel machines are generally manufactured specifically for each project. While there is continuous research and development into TBM designs they are not manufactured with the same reliability as cars and other consumer goods. There is always something unexpected that has gone wrong on each project that has required modifications to the TBM design and manufacture. This is why it is essential to have strong supplier support during the excavation phase of the project.  

What is one of your biggest professional achievements to date?

The successful completion of the Waterview Tunnel Project. I was involved from the beginning of the project putting the specification together and managing the procurement, followed by the construction phase monitoring and the final inspections at the end. This project is the biggest transport project completed to date in NZ, and utilised the eighth biggest TBM in the world at the time and the largest in the southern hemisphere. The collaboration required between all parties to successfully deliver the project was very satisfying. The project transformed Auckland by completing the missing link in the Auckland motorway network, and saving up to 25 minutes of travel time for 80,000 people per day.

What’s your favourite part about your job?

One of the exciting things about being a major project director is that I get to work on the most complex projects. This involves assembling large teams and providing the leadership to achieve great results for our clients. I have worked with a number of my team on the City Rail Link project for over eight years, with some staff starting the project as graduates and leaving as seasoned professionals. It is very satisfying seeing people you are working with developing on a project and succeeding in their careers. The legacy left by projects such as the Waterview Connection tunnels and City Rail Link and the way they transform our city is also fantastic to be part of.

Were there any hurdles in your career that you had to overcome? What were they and how did you do it?

One of the challenges with working in the tunnel industry is that it is a global industry with technological advances occurring around the world. It is very difficult to achieve the right experience by staying in the one location as relevant projects often occur sporadically. At one stage of my career my development had stalled so I transferred to London for three years which provided a real springboard for the next stage of my career. I have also worked on projects and in several locations around the world which is very important in getting the right experience. Moving around different countries can be difficult on families, but I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on many great projects.