Lyttelton tunnel celebrates 50 years

GED CANN
Last updated 05:00 29/08/2014
Jack Smith
Kirk Hargreaves / Fairfax NZ

TUNNEL VISION: Jack Smith, the project manager during the Lyttelton Tunnel construction, recalls the now 50-year-old facility was built on time and under budget.

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One of the greatest issues Lyttelton Tunnel project manager Jack Smith faced was when the two ends met and his men started disappearing at lunchtime for fish and chips.

The road tunnel linking the city and port marks its 50th anniversary by opening its gates to foot traffic for three hours on Sunday.

Smith oversaw the three-year project, which he remembered as a straightforward job finished on time, and under budget.

One aspect he said drove him mad were the tiles, which were only added as an afterthought when the job came in $250,000 under budget.

It took 50 tilers nine months working non-stop to place more than a million tiles, and involved the use of epoxy glue for the first time in New Zealand.

"The tilers got terrible dermatitis because they didn't use gloves. We provided additional wash facilities but in the end that was solved by offering them an extra sixpence an hour," Smith said. There were very few professional tunnellers at the time and anyone who applied was taken on, including bus drivers and teachers.

Smith was not surprised the tunnel had stood up well during the Canterbury earthquakes.

He said that if the original designs, which did not use pre-stressed concrete, had been used the outcome could have been very different.

On the night of the tunnel's opening 50 years ago, a queue of cars stretched back almost to the central city.

"It was great novelty to drive through the hill - Christchurch had waited 100 years to see this tunnel," Smith said.

Toll booths operated until 1979, and were stopped when the cost to collect became greater than the take, he said.

Organisers of Sunday's event are asking for a toll of sorts - a gold coin donation, for Cholmondeley Children's Centre.

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- The Press

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