Japan's Seikan Tunnel: an idea whose time has come, and gone. In age of jets, world's longest train tunnel nears completion
A rubber-booted fisherman moves his trawler slowly under the afternoon sun, preparing to go fishing for squid on the choppy waters of the Tsugaru Strait. In a nearby caf'e a few customers eat their lunchtime noodles while watching a soap opera on television. Very little stirs in this tiny fishing village on the southern coast of Hokkaido. The town -- a thin layer of wooden homes and a few shops -- nestles quietly against verdant hills that reach down to the seaside.Skip to next paragraph
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There is little to suggest that directly below the feet of the fisherman, some 787 feet straight down, lies one of the engineering marvels of the century, the Seikan Tunnel.
Through the tunnel, a breeze blows from the main Japanese island of Honshu to the northern island of Hokkaido. From end to end, it is 32.3 miles long, making it by far the longest tunnel in the world. The undersea portion of the tunnel, some 14 miles, is itself longer than the world's longest overland tunnel, the 12-mile Simplon Tunnel through the Swiss Alps.
The Seikan has revolutionized tunneling technology. Its successful completion (it is 95 percent finished) serves as a model for similarly ambitious projects, such as the proposed tunnel linking France and Britain under the English Channel.
On a hillside behind this village in 1964, the first bites were taken out of the earth. Today, the men finishing the tunnel can ride down in relative comfort, sitting in open cars pulled by a small railway engine down an inclined shaft. The tunnel subway carries the hard-hatted workers down three-quarters of a mile, stopping at points to disgorge them into intersecting tunnels.
Along with engineer Yoshinori Sekiguchi, who has spent 10 years of his life working on this tunnel, we made a different entrance, descending down a vertical elevator shaft nearby. Through a parallel service tunnel, we could enter the main tunnel under the sea.
We entered an underground world. We walked through a maze of connecting passageways, past men pouring cement or installing electrical cables. The air was cool and dry, redolent of cement. The workmen ride bicycles to travel around in the tunnel.
Entering the main tunnel is a visual shock. The ceiling appears to be far above your head, like a great underground cavern. The floor is a concrete highway that appears to stretch endlessly in either direction. On the concrete floor are high standing cement beds for two railway tracks whose new, shiny steel rails shimmer under the tunnel lights.
At enormous cost in money and human lives, men like engineer Sekiguchi have blasted and carved this tunnel out of volcanic rock and through nine major geological faults 328 feet below the sea floor. They have faced major floods, including one in 1976 that took 70 days to control. One difficult 1,640-foot stretch of soft rock formations took 4 years to tunnel through.
Standing inside it, one is awe-struck by the audacity of the idea, and it is hard to disagree with Sekiguchi: ``Linking Honshu and Hokkaido is worth more than money -- it is a dream of the Japanese people. In the future it will give our children confidence in the greatness of Japan.''
Yet in the harsh light of day outside the tunnel, the Japanese must face another reality. The project, many say, is a white elephant. The builders acknowledge that it may never pay back the cost of its construction.