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September 2011

People in tunnel jpeg

Royal Melbourne Hospital building and services operations manager Nick Keogh describes the ‘plug-in’ system that enables the hospital to provide infrastructure services to the adjoining Royal Women’s Hospital. (Picture courtesy of RMH Medical Illustration)

People in queue jpeg

The queue to go on a tour of the RMH tunnels during Melbourne Open House.

Public treated to tunnel tours

About 1,200 visitors went behind the scenes at The Royal Melbourne when the hospital provided public access for the first time to its services tunnels.

The tours were part of Melbourne Open House, the annual two-day event that takes Melburnians behind the scenes of some of the city’s most significant buildings.

They highlighted infrastructure services that are vital to keeping an acute hospital operating smoothly including the supply of power – with multiple back up systems to guarantee no interruption to critical clinical areas – water, oxygen and heating systems, waste management, linen, cleaning staff, mail, IT, pharmacy, medical records and other below-ground services.

The tunnels also link with the Royal Women’s and Royal Children’s hospitals, Melbourne University and the former dental hospital across Grattan Street.

‘I was gobsmacked by the interest in our tunnels and pipes,’ Engineering Manager Nick Keogh said.

‘The queues ran the length of the Function Centre out into the main foyer.

‘On the Sunday, we added more tours and increased numbers on each tour to meet the demand.’

‘There was a real buzz and a great positive feeling,’ said RMH event organiser Petrina Dakin.

‘The visitors found the tunnels fascinating and it showed them a completely different side to the hospital.

‘We definitely want to be part of Melbourne Open House next year.’

The underground tunnels were constructed in the late 1930s, when the new RMH was being built in Grattan Street, Parkville.

At that time, the tunnels were 850 feet long, containing steam and service pipes, to transport washing to and from the laundry and goods from the stores section.

More than 50 miles of pipes were needed for steam for sterilisation and internal heating and hot water.

On a winter’s day, 16 tons of water were needed to be converted to steam.

Unexpectedly, the tunnels and hospital were first used not by Victorians or even Australians – the U.S. Army’s 4th General Hospital occupied the newly-built hospital for two years from March, 1942 to March, 1944.

The army used every available space to treat 35,000 wounded and sick soldiers from the Pacific during that time.

Staff and patients in the old RMH building in Lonsdale Street had to wait a little longer to use their new hospital.

Mystery surrounds just where the tunnels extended to during wartime and whether they still exist – possibly as far as Victoria Barracks to the south and Mt Alexander Road to the west.

A 750-metre tunnel under Flemington Road – perhaps originally part of a link to the U.S. Army camp in Royal Park during the 1940s – is used to supply steam to the Royal Children’s Hospital, until the new Children’s opens this November.

There have been many infrastructure changes since the hospital officially opened in 1944, such as reconfigurations of the tunnels, new technology, environmental initiatives and much more.

The hospital has eight tunnels, the latest built in 2005.

The RMH tunnels are also used to provide infrastructure services to the Royal Women’s Hospital, which relocated beside the RMH in 2008, and will have a key role in supporting the new Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre across Grattan Street, which opens in 2015.