Tue, Mar 19, 2002 - Page 4 News List

Dangers, difficulties make Ilan tunnel no boring task

BESET BY DIFFICULTY Merciless flooding, the defection of frustrated engineers and countless delays have marred the Hsuehshan tunnel project, one of the greatest engineering feats ever attempted in Taiwan


Engineers work on the 250m-deep vertical No. 2 shaft at the Hsuehshan tunnel site, which will be the longest highway tunnel in Asia.


Builders of the Hsuehshan (雪山, Snow Mountain) Tunnel, labeled one of the most challenging road construction projects in the world, were forced to halt work over the weekend -- just one day after earth boring resumed after a 10-month hiatus.

The reason for the work stoppage was once again the appearance of water, the source of which has puzzled the development team, springing forth unpredictably and freezing the smiles that only recently appeared on team members' faces during the decade-old task of boring out the tunnel.

Endless water

The boring of the Hsuehshan Tunnel -- the centerpiece of the 31km Beiyi Freeway (北宜快速路) connecting Taipei and the eastern city of Ilan, was suspended nearly a year ago mainly because of water.

Year-round, regardless of the season, water has continued to inundate the construction site at the rate of 150 to 200 liters per second.

Seeking to learn the source of the water, the construction team had the water carbon-dated. They discovered that some of the water at the construction site is about 4,800 years old. No word yet, though, on where it is coming from.

The 12.9km tunnel -- one of the most important development projects ever initiated by the KMT and one whose completion Premier Yu Shyi-kun has placed high on his Cabinet's agenda -- is set to open in 2005.

If work remains on schedule, the journey between Taipei and Ilan will be reduced from the current two hours to just 40 minutes.

The Beiyi Freeway is considered a major breakthrough for Ilan's transportation and road development, which has been called the "back of the mountain."

Because of the high-mountain barrier, people from Ilan have had to trek along the coastal highway to Taipei or by lengthier and more treacherous mountain routes.

On a recent inspection tour of the various construction sites along the freeway project, Kuo Yao-chi (郭瑤琪), chairwoman of the Cabinet's Public Construction Commission, described her visit as a "trip of learning."

Kuo praised the endeavor and the diligence of the construction team and said that her inspections have allowed her to gain a better understanding of the difficulties the team has had to overcome.

When completed, the Hsuehshan Tunnel will be Asia's longest and the world's third-longest after a tunnel linking Switzerland and Italy and another that links Switzerland and France.

Development of the tunnel, which began in July 1991, has been a trying task, the story of which could easily fill a thick book.

Along with the more predictable difficulties of building on mountainous terrain, the unique geological factors in areas the tunnel is passing through have tested the mettle of construction teams.

The freeway development team is an experienced one, with seasoned engineers and workers from the Ret-Ser Engineering Agency (榮工處), best remembered for building major highways and bridges in the deserts of Saudi Arabia; developers from the Taiwan Area National Expressway Engineering Bureau under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications; civil engineering professors from National Taiwan University; and engineering consultants from Japan and various Western nations

The team originally planned to complete the penetration of the mammoth Hsuehshan -- the mountain backbone of northern Taiwan that divides the Taipei Basin in the north and the Lanyang Plain in the east -- by the end of 2000.

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