Eleanor Sillerico: ‘Tunnels are fascinating challenges’ 

Eleanor Sillerico is part of the Purple (D) Line Extension Transit Project team. / Foto: courtesy.

When Eleanor Sillerico was 15 years old, she wanted to be a doctor. However, after volunteering in a local clinic in her native La Paz, Bolivia, she became drawn to large infrastructure projects that help people move around. Today, Sillerico’s passion and dedication as a civil engineer have taken her to various parts of the world to carry out big and important projects. Since November 2019, she has been the Construction Manager for Tunnels Section 3 of Metro’s Purple (D) Line Extension Transit Project.  

Sillerico’s love for engineering came from her father, also a civil engineer. “He shared his books and site plans with me when I was a student. My dad taught me about construction materials and equipment,” says Sillerico. Her father specializes in hydraulic engineering, which involves building dams to provide drinking water, something essential in Bolivia. Several times she went with her family to attend new projects’ openings. “I was impressed to see all the benefits that a dam could bring to hundreds of families with irrigation systems.” 

The same thing happened when her father built roads in rural areas. “People switched from driving on dirt to driving on asphalt, which improved mobility by connecting cities and reducing travel time. That’s when I realized the impact that structures can have on a community and a city.” 

In Bolivia, Sillerico oversaw the construction of highways. Then, moved to Spain where she completed two master’s degrees, one in tunnels and another in geotechnics—to learn about soil behavior and its interaction with structures. After that, she was hired by one of the five largest construction companies in Spain, where she spent seven years helping build tunnels in Madrid and Malaga. She then moved to England and worked on the Crossrail Project, a 26-mile railway line that runs underneath Central London. She was transferred to Georgia, at the intersection between Europe and Asia, to work on a hydroelectric project that included 20 miles of tunnels. Then, she returned to London to work on the design of some of the tunnels for Britain’s new high-speed railway HS2 connecting London with the north of England. 

It was precisely because of her experience with tunnels that Metro welcomed her on the Purple (D) Line Extension Transit Project team, which seeks to expand the D Line westward with seven new stations from the Mid-Wilshire District to West Los Angeles. Sillerico provides construction management support for the 2.56 miles of tunneling and cross passages construction in Section 3, which is forecasted to open in 2027. 

The engineer in the construction area of ​​section 3 of the Purple (D) Line Extension Transit Project.

“The magnitude of Metro’s project caught my attention, and I was excited to be in the project since the beginning using the tunnel boring machine (TBM) [a machine similar to a rotating head with knives that helps excavate through rock and soil],” says the engineer. She explains that building with a TBM is very cutting edge because as the TBM digs, it also creates a structural shell for the tunnel. “In the case of the Purple Line, the structure is a 13-inch-thick reinforced concrete lining. It’s very safe,” she says. Sillerico also checks the speed at which the machine travels, the thrust against the ground, and the face pressure, among other things. 

“Tunnels are fascinating challenges,” says Sillerico. Among these challenges, depth is a major factor. For example, Section 3 of the Purple Line is about 120 feet deep at the deepest location, so lighting, ventilation, and temperature are substantially different than at ground level.  

Sillerico helped design and build the Liverpool St. of the Crossrail Project.

Tackling new projects is something that Sillerico enjoys. “When you build a tunnel from point A to point B and finish, it is rewarding. Then you start from scratch all over again.” Last August, Eleanor went to London for her birthday, rode the Crossrail railway –– now called the Elizabeth Line in honor of Queen Elizabeth II –– and was thrilled to walk through the stations she helped design and build, Liverpool St. and Whitechapel stations. “I spent hours thinking about the effort it required. Now everything looks clean and well-lit, but during the excavation, it was just a hole in the ground with workers covered in dust,” she says. “The construction of tunnels means sacrifice.” 

Sillerico is proud to be a Latina involved in projects that leave a mark. A few months ago, she was invited to share her professional experiences with university engineering students in Bolivia, where she encouraged them to put effort into their careers and told them that they can go far. “It was also a message for women,” she says. “Of the few that complete their careers, female engineers focus on the construction of roads, buildings, bridges, and dams, but there are few who specialize in tunnels.” 

Over her 20-year career in a “man’s business”, Sillerico says she has encountered people who have tried to minimize her achievements. “If you are a woman, the challenge to reach leadership positions doubles, but you should not give up. If you are dedicated, willing to listen to constructive criticism, and willing to learn no matter how much you know, believe me, you can do it.”