It’s not every day that one gets the opportunity to see what lies below the ground.

We’ve seen underground tunnelling on YouTube or in documentaries but nothing beats witnessing with the naked eye, the dark beauty that sits beneath the soil.

MMC-Gamuda’s young talents can tell you what a thrill it has been working on building the country’s first Mass Rapid Transit project (KVMRT Sungai Buloh-Kajang line or Line 1).

Line 1 comprises both elevated and underground portions; the latter involves tunnelling more than 40m down into the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s busy city centre.

Various expertise including architects, planners, design engineers, safety managers, traffic managers, tunnellers and station construction engineers were hired at the start of the project which began in 2011 and is on track to be completed at the end of next month.

Meanwhile, Line 2 (also known as the Sungai Buloh-Serdang-Putrajaya line) is scheduled for completion in 2022 to serve as critical urban rail lines in the Klang Valley.

Prior to the construction of KVMRT, foreign expertise was often called on for underground infrastructure projects.

Behind this current mega project is a bunch of bright local manpower, playing a pivotal role in the successful completion of the first phase of the largest infrastructure in the country.

One of them is Safwan Azri Ismail, the Tun Razak Exchange (TRX) station section head, who joined MMC-Gamuda as an engineer in 2012 after a stint working on a different project in Tapah, Perak.

The TRX station is the biggest and deepest station as it accommodates both Line 1 and Line 2 stacked on top of each other. The lowest platform is below sea level.

With seven floors (equivalent to 12 floors in a residential building), there were multiple issues to deal with while building the underground station.

Safwan had to overcome his fear of going underground during the excavation period. Photos: Ibrahim Mohtar/The Star

Fear of the unknown

But first, Safwan had to deal with his fear of going underground and the pitch black surroundings.

The vertical cut was so deep and especially scary when he worked late at night, which was a regular occurrence during the initial phase. Despite all the lighting, the sinking feeling that he was down a deep hole sent shivers down his spine.

“The depth was about 43m and we had a small space to excavate. The gayat (dizzy) feeling was hard to shake off but I had to get used to it.

“The station is the biggest, deepest and longest so there were many challenges during the excavation period.

“The soil is about 10m and after that, it’s all karstic limestone terrain. I would look at it daily wondering if it will be solid and whether it would slide! You really don’t know what to expect when you dig so deep and in this case, we even came across a huge cave full of water and sludge,” recalls the 30-year-old.

Many visitors to the site would also get a little apprehensive when they peered over the fence into the excavated ground and saw ant-sized trucks and workers going about their business.

The team had to blast the rocks using controlled blasting methods and they were only allowed to do this before 5pm. The noise and vibration affected Safwan but he eventually became immune to it.

He says, “The bigger challenge lay in the mucking of station rocks. We had to bring in machinery to hoist the rocks out and daily, we’d remove about 10 tonnes of rock before we started building the structure.”

Safwan had to use a ladder to go up and down the deep station. Not only was it tiring, he would be sweating profusely on the job – the bonus: it helped improve his fitness.

“It was scary because every time it rained, we all had to run up slowly and safely. It takes us five minutes to go down but 15 minutes to climb up! But I value my experience as I would not have gotten it anywhere else,” says the Melaka-born.

He and the team also had to deal with geo-technical experts on how to tackle the slopes and water issues.

Safwan spends at least 10 hours on site and another few hours catching up with paperwork at the office. His responsibilities include looking after the environment, taking note of public comments and safety.

His wow moment came when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak visited the station in 2015 and as project leader, Safwan couldn’t help grinning from ear to ear.

Every trickle of perspiration and anxiety has been worth it though Safwan says, “I don’t mind a shallow station after this!”

The long hours may seem daunting for a single man but he isn’t complaining. On his day off, you can find the afffable lad with a fishing rod in Port Klang, trying to release stress and rake in his supper.

“Perhaps someday I may have the chance to lead the group. That’s my ambition,” says Safwan, clocking in another day’s work.

Pudu shaft engineer Ikhwan had to deal with old building structures while mining from the Pudu Shaft to Pasar Seni station.

Mining below old structures

For Pudu shaft engineer Ikhwan Aizuddin Aziz, 32, he never dreamed that dropping his resume at a job fair would lead to an underground opportunity of sorts.

“When I was in college, I was always interested in the construction of the Stormwater Management and Road Tunnel (SMART). I thought the people who worked on the project were so lucky to have garnered the tunnelling experience.

“So when I was offered a chance to work on KVMRT, it was like a second chance and I grabbed the job. A project of this magnitude was too good to turn down,” says the (UiTM) graduate who joined MMC-Gamuda in 2013 right after completing his tertiary education.

MMC-Gamuda was also the prime mover behind the world’s first-of-its-kind dual-purpose SMART – an award-winning project to manage floods and relieve traffic in Kuala Lumpur.

Ikhwan’s colleagues told him the job would be tough, but he was unperturbed and ready to face the challenges.

He says, “One of my biggest challenges was when we launched the Tunnel Boring Machine. With an opening of 11m x 7m, the shaft had limited space and we had to drop the machine part by part into a depth of 22m.

Part of the other challenges Ikhwan had to face included dealing with old building structures while mining from the Pudu Shaft to Pasar Seni station. They had to mine below the existing Light Rail Transit line, while ensuring the safety of the surrounding buildings within a 100m radius.

“It was highly risky but in six months, we managed to bore through without any incident. My reward was seeing the machine breakthrough at the Pasar Seni station. The mining was completed and it was an exhilarating moment,” says the lad from Kemaman, Terengganu.

Another huge obstacle was the timing of the mining process, as it had to be delivered on time so that it would not affect works at other stations.

His current role is to supervise and monitor sub-contractors daily, ensuring they follow all the approved drawings and specifications, liaise with consultants to inspect the work and solve other problems.

As the son of a technician with Jabatan Kerja Raya Malaysia, Ikhwan is proud of his achievements.

“Every day is a new thing and new issues crop up. I’m learning how to come up with solutions from my managers.”

Like Safwan, Ikhwan puts in at least 12 hours on the job. During the tunnelling process, he found the night shifts from 8pm to 8am especially draining.

After every six days of work, he gets three days off and that’s when he chills out at home or heads back to his hometown for some pampering.

Once Line 1 is completed, Ikhwan will move on to Line 2 and he cannot wait for work to commence.

He says, “Different areas have different soil conditions so it will be a new experience for me. I want to share my knowledge with other young people.”

‘Architectural work is actually more difficult than engineering,’ says Cochrane station engineer, Euzir.

Putting the finishing touches

While Safwan and Ikhwan had their respective issues to handle, Md Euzir Md Eusof was tasked with architectural building work finishes.

As the Cochrane station engineer, his job specifications require him to look after the external work such as flooring, ceiling, cladding, and handrails.

“Initially I was asked to work as a civil engineer and assigned to do structural works and then I was transferred to take over the architectural work, which is new to me,” says Euzir, 31, a graduate in mechanical engineering from Universiti Tenaga Nasional.

His biggest challenge is to ensure Cochrane station is the benchmark for other stations, as it needs to be in tip-top condition before work on the other stations can be carried out.

“Architectural work is actually more difficult than engineering!” he says, laughing. “There is a lot of coordination work. Most of the materials are imported so the delivery of these materials is often an issue.

“What made it more difficult was to bring the materials from ground level to the other levels as we only have a few openings.

I also have to inspect the material during delivery to make sure it is what we ordered.”

Indeed, there are defects sometimes and Euzir then has to do another inspection to get the client’s approval.

It is sheer joy to lead his team on audits of Cochrane station and to see the fruits of his labour.

Euzir says, “We’re almost there. What’s left is only the ground level entrance to the station – the ceiling and the granite. We’ve already handed the station over to the operator in May.”

Despite learning on the job, Euzir is happy to have been able to pick up valuable skills and experience from the project.

“I love my job even though I work 10 hours daily. On my rest days, I spend time with my family,” says the father-of-one who lives in Serdang, Selangor.