Mon, May 14, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Motorway tunnels are dangerous black holes

By Tsai Chung-yueh 蔡中岳

On Monday last week a crash in the Hsuehshan Tunnel caused a fire in which two people were killed and others were injured. This tragic accident has focused attention on the risks associated with long tunnels.

Construction of the Hsuehshan Tunnel was an engineering miracle, but it eventually cost NT$30 billion (US$1.02 billion) more than its original budget. The tunnel broke through age-old aquifers and 25 workers lost their lives in the process of digging it. Now that the tunnel has claimed more lives, it would be a disservice to the souls of the deceased if we did not take this opportunity to recognize and find ways of resolving the problems associated with long tunnels.

Although not all details of the accident are clear at this stage, one thing we do know is that 300 to 400 people got stuck in a tunnel in which the smoke extraction equipment did not work very well. Although drills on using the tunnel’s emergency response equipment have been conducted from time to time, the action taken when this real-life accident occurred was too slow.

An important reason for this is that when a fire breaks out in a long tunnel, the heat will spread along the tunnel, turning it into a giant slow cooker.

The recent accident happened at an off-peak time close to one end of the tunnel. Could emergency services respond effectively if a crash occurred in the middle of the tunnel when traffic was at its busiest?

The road condition report on the National Freeway Bureau’s Web site was not updated until two hours after the crash. How are people supposed to know about road conditions if the authorities act so slowly?

Nobody wants to see accidents happen, but in case they do, rescue equipment must working properly, regular drills must be held and information must be promptly updated.

More worrying are the planned improvements to the Suhua Highway, which runs along the east coast from Suao (蘇澳) in Yilan County to Hualien City. The project includes four tunnels more than 3km in length. The lengths of the planned Guanyin (觀音) and Gufong (谷風) tunnels between Nanao Township in Yilan County (南澳) and Heping Village (和平) in Hualien County add up to 12.5km, nearly the length of the Hsuehshan Tunnel.

A lot of geologists say that the geological structure of this area is more complex than the Hsuehshan Tunnel. Even the engineering units tasked with building the road admit they do not have a full grasp of the geological formations through which they will soon be tunneling. Apart from the risks that may arise from digging through fragmented rock strata, the planned road is supposed to carry gravel trucks, big goods trucks and other heavy vehicles. Shoulders, weigh stations and other facilities are included in the construction plans to accommodate them. This only adds to worries that these planned tunnels may present considerable risks.

An application has been made to alter the Yongle (永樂) section of the Suhua Highway project. People living around the Wuta (武塔) section have staged protests and ancient remains have been excavated along the Hanben (漢本) section. These factors show that the environmental impact assessment for the road was approved in haste and has a lot of defects. There are obvious problems over communication with local residents and the planning and design of the whole project.

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