How Tunnels Work

Tunnel Planning

Almost every tunnel is a solution to a specific challenge or problem. In many cases, that challenge is an obstacle that a roadway or railway must bypass. They might be bodies of water, mountains or other transportation routes. Even cities, with little open space available for new construction, can be an obstacle that engineers must tunnel beneath to avoid.

Building the Seikan tunnel
  Photo courtesy Japan Railway Public Corporation
Construction of the Seikan Tunnel involved a 24-year struggle to overcome challenges posed by soft rock under the sea.

In the case of the Holland Tunnel, the challenge was an obsolete ferry system that strained to transport more than 20,000 vehicles a day across the Hudson River. For New York City officials, the solution was clear: Build an automobile tunnel under the river and let commuters drive themselves from New Jersey into the city. The tunnel made an immediate impact. On the opening day alone, 51,694 vehicles made the crossing, with an average trip time of just 8 minutes.

Sometimes, tunnels offer a safer solution than other structures. The Seikan Tunnel in Japan was built because ferries crossing the Tsugaru Strait often encountered dangerous waters and weather conditions. After a typhoon sank five ferryboats in 1954, the Japanese government considered a variety of solutions. They decided that any bridge safe enough to withstand the severe conditions would be too difficult to build. Finally, they proposed a railway tunnel running almost 800 feet below the sea surface. Ten years later, construction began, and in 1988, the Seikan Tunnel officially opened.

How a tunnel is built depends heavily on the material through which it must pass. Tunneling through soft ground, for instance, requires very different techniques than tunneling through hard rock or soft rock, such as shale, chalk or sandstone. Tunneling underwater, the most challenging of all environments, demands a unique approach that would be impossible or impractical to implement above ground.

That's why planning is so important to a successful tunnel project. Engineers conduct a thorough geologic analysis to determine the type of material they will be tunneling through and assess the relative risks of different locations. They consider many factors, but some of the most important include:

  • Soil and rock types
  • Weak beds and zones, including faults and shear zones
  • Groundwater, including flow pattern and pressure
  • Special hazards, such as heat, gas and fault lines

Often, a single tunnel will pass through more than one type of material or encounter multiple hazards. Good planning allows engineers to plan for these variations right from the beginning, decreasing the likelihood of an unexpected delay in the middle of the project.

Once engineers have analyzed the material that the tunnel will pass through and have developed an overall excavation plan, construction can begin. The tunnel engineers' term for building a tunnel is driving, and advancing the passageway can be a long, tedious process that requires blasting, boring and digging by hand.

In the next section, we'll look at how workers drive tunnels through soft ground and hard rock.