Rail & Infrastructure

Tunnel vision

Dalian plans world’s largest undersea project

Tunnel vision

No one could accuse the builders of the Channel Tunnel of acting in haste. The idea was first proposed in 1802 by French engineer Albert Mathieu, who envisaged horse-drawn carriages going through the tunnel, guided by gas lights. A British deputation then raised the idea formally with Gladstone in 1865, and in 1875 a Channel Tunnel Company was established to conduct trials.

The idea refused to go away, although the British and French governments didn’t start geological surveys until 1955. A false start occurred in 1974 when digging began only to be abandoned. Fifteen years would pass before the diggers started again, this time seeing the job through to fruition. Thus in May 1994, the tunnel was finally opened by the Queen and President Mitterand. Measuring 50.5km in total length, it broke the record for the longest undersea tunnel (with 38km directly beneath the English Channel).

Over in China they don’t believe in quite so much dilly-dallying where mega-infrastructure projects are concerned. Even so, when it comes to the proposed Bohai Harbour Crossing, some are wondering whether tunnel enthusiasts may face similar headwinds to those encountered by the Anglo-French engineers.

Like the Channel Tunnel, the Bohai project is not to be entered into lightly. For a start, it blows the Anglo-French effort out of the water in terms of scale: on completion it will measure well over twice its length. And then there’s the small issue of cost – an estimated price tag of Rmb200 billion ($32.2 billion). That is also more than twice the cost of the Channel Tunnel (which came in – over budget – at £9.5 billion).

Preparations for the Bohai tunnel – first mooted by an academic from the Chinese Academy of Engineering in 2005 – have taken on a new level of seriousness after it emerged that the state economic planner, the NDRC, has ordered an inspection report to be delivered to the State Council by June. In late March the deputy secretary general of Dalian told a news conference that his own city will “actively cooperate with the relevant state ministries” to make the project happen. Should the plan be approved, media estimates are that it will take six to eight years to complete.

The key players pushing for the Bohai project are the bureaucrats of Liaoning and Shandong. That’s because the tunnel will connect their respective provinces, via the cities of Yantai and Dalian (for more on this fast-growing city in Liaoning, see WiC169). The hope is that the new link will stimulate an enormous economic opportunity, cutting distances between the the rustbelt regions of Liaoning and the more thriving eastern seaboard. The current distance by road or rail between Yantai and Dalian is almost 2,000km and the tunnel’s fans say that it takes 40 hours to move goods by ship between the cities, more during peak periods. A tunnel with a fast train will dramatically improve transportation links, with estimates of travelling times dropping to as little as half an hour.

Mu Fanmin, the chairman of the Shandong Yantai Jinchuang Group – as well as a deputy to China’s legislature – has a bold vision for the scheme. He says the project will support a new north-south rail artery connecting five large economic circles: the Russian Far East, Northeast China, the Bohai Sea Rim, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta.

But, as ever, there are sceptics too, among them the 21CN Business Herald, which reckons the tunnel faces “world-class technical problems”. One key issue is that – unlike the Channel Tunnel – engineers on the Bohai project lack decades worth of geological tests on the rock beneath the sea. New Century Weekly notes that the Anglo-French effort benefitted from chalk formations that acted as a natural buttress, helping to strengthen the tunnel’s roof.

It’s not evident that the underwater terrain in Bohai Bay is as suitable. For example, there’s another area of concern: the tunnel will go through a seismic zone, meaning it will need to be engineered to withstand a magnitude-8 earthquake.

If it does go ahead, the 106 kilometre tunnel will prove that China’s love affair with huge infrastructure flourishes still.

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