Digging deep in Copenhagen

A new subway is under construction in Copenhagen. Transporting earth through a city of over one million inhabitants represents a real challenge for truck drivers. Johnny Olsen is one of them and this is his story.
Sunway construction in Copenhagen
Copenhagen, which has one of the highest densities of bicycles in the world, is building a new subway system.

The two guards in front of the truck have lifted their stop signs. Three cars and four cyclists stop and Johnny Olsen gets the go-ahead to drive. The truck slowly rolls down the road and into the construction site. With an experienced hand he swings to the right and drives up to the automated wheel wash.

“Every time we drive in and out of the area we wash the tires. There would be far too much clay in town otherwise,” says Johnny and reverses into position so that the excavator stone can start filling the two tipper bodies.

The construction site is called Trianglen and is located in Copenhagen’s inner city. It will be one of 17 stations on the city’s new metro – known as the Cityringen. The building project, which is the largest in Copenhagen in modern times, consists of two tunnels, each 15.5 km and another four construction sites from where the tunnel boring machines drill their way under the city. The new subway is an extension of the already existing one. 

Johnny’s task is to carry away the earth that is dug up from underground at the construction sites. When the project is finished, three million tonnes of earth will have been transported away from the city’s interior.

“Right now it’s probably a bit problematic for those living in Copenhagen. There is construction taking place in so many different locations. Yet in the end I think it will be fine,” says Johnny, who notes that if more people take the subway in the future then there will be fewer cars on the city’s streets.

Via the communication radio, Johnny has direct contact with the excavator operator. Huge amounts of earth are collected from a depth of 18 metres by a larger excavator. When the station at Trianglen is completed, its lowest point will be around 40 metres.

Johnny keeps tabs on the display in the cab that shows how much soil has been loaded. 

Some might think it would be boring to just drive back and forth, but I really like it. Truck driving is a job that offers freedom compared to sitting in an office or standing on a factory production line.

The truck has a load capacity of 17 tonnes and the drawbar trailer takes 18 tonnes. The empty truck rig weighs about 21 tonnes. The truck shakes slightly each time the excavator operator adds a new load. Johnny gives the signal via radio when the display shows 56 tonnes. The truck is fully loaded.

“Now we are going to Nordhavn, that’s where we leave the load,” says Johnny and drives out from the site.

Copenhagen is growing and in the old port district north of the city centre, several construction projects are ongoing where houses and offices are being built for thousands of new Copenhageners. At the far end of this neighbourhood – Nordhavn – there is also the construction of a new container terminal and port for cruise ships underway. To accommodate this, a new 100-acre tract of land is being created, using some of the soil from the subway construction. The new land is slowly spreading out onto what was once the sea.

On the way across town to Nordhavn, Johnny sits calmly and safe behind the wheel, all the while with a smile on his face. It is obvious that he likes his job.

“Some might think it would be boring to just drive back and forth, but I really like it. Truck driving is a job that offers freedom compared to sitting in an office or standing on a factory production line.”

Johnny lights up when he talks about his wife and four children. It is noticeable that his family means a lot to him, but he admits that it can be a little difficult to find enough time in his schedule. Johnny lives an hour’s drive from Copenhagen and his working days usually start at five o’clock in the morning.

Then he drives the truck all day and is home again with his family by six o’clock in the evening. Since summer 2014, Johnny has been driving for haulage company SCT, an employer that he really likes. “It’s a great working environment. The comradeship between colleagues at SCT is something I value highly. We are there for each other and everyone is very nice.”

SCT is one of several trucking companies involved in working on the subway in Copenhagen. The main tasks are to carry the soil from the construction sites and to transport the excavated material from the tunnel boring machines.

The number of lorries that SCT uses on the subway construction in Copenhagen varies between 20 and 50, depending on how much earth has to be transported. The most common truck model is the Volvo FH with tipper semitrailers, but the company also has eight FMX tipper trucks with draw bar trailers in traffic. All SCT trucks are equipped with Globetrotter cabs, even the Volvo FMX trucks where several drivers can stay overnight in their cabins during the working week.

Johnny’s truck is a Volvo FMX from 2014 with the 8×4 configuration and dual front axles. The power from the 500 hp 13-litre engine is efficiently transferred to the trucks tandem drive axles. The front steering axles in combination with the drawbar trailer make the truck rig very smooth to drive. Johnny thinks this is positive, because it can be narrow when manoeuvring the truck inside the building sites.

“The truck feels very stable even with heavy loads. The I-Shift gearbox is very precise. I think it is a very good truck,” says Johnny and slows down at a red light. 

Copenhagen is one of the cities with the highest density of bicycles in the world and this is evident in traffic where cyclists and trucks must often share space. The building contractor Copenhagen Metro Team has put a lot of effort into implementing the project in as safe a manner as possible for the city’s inhabitants. In collaboration with SCT it has, among other things, allowed all children attending schools near construction sites to sit in a Volvo truck with the aim of teaching them what a truck driver can and cannot see from his or her truck cab.

The truck feels very stable even with heavy loads. The I-Shift gearbox is very precise. I think it is a very good truck.

During the most transport-intensive construction period, an average of 500 trucks drive to and from the construction sites every day. 375 traffic lights have been changed in order to minimise disruption on the city’s roads. Trucks must also always drive the same route through the city to and from Nordhavn.

“Put simply, one must drive very carefully. Security is the top priority,” says Johnny, and checks one more time at the bottom of the truck’s mirrors before he turns right over a cycle-path crossing.

On arrival in Nordhavn, Johnny steers the truck up onto a weighing machine before he drives into the area. During the day, Johnny drives between four and five loads from the construction site to Nordhavn. All shipments are weighed carefully.

A seagull hovers in the wind, peering down over the area where truck after truck dump their loads. Johnny has reversed the truck into the dumping area where he first tips the rear platform and then the front.

“One more load and then I go home to my family. I’m looking forward to it,” says Johnny and breaks into a big smile. 

The truck

The Volvo FMX was launched on the road in March 2014. The Euro 5 engine is 13 litres and 500 horsepower.

The automated I-Shift gearbox simplifies work in harsh environments, and the driver can concentrate 100 per cent on the journey.

The truck rig consists of a 3-way tipper truck with an 8×4 configuration, dual front axles and a3-axle drawbar 3-way tipper trailer. It can tip loads to the right, left and backwards.

The rig weighs 20.4 tonnes. The truck has a load capacity of 17 tonnes and the drawbar trailer 18 tonnes. The maximum allowed gross weight is 56 tonnes.

The truck is equipped with a Globetrotter cab, which allows the driver to stay overnight in the cab if required.