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.

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.

The problems of the Seikan Tunnel are in large part the result of bad timing.

It may not be an exaggeration to say that the tunnel is an idea whose time has come, and gone. When the project was first conceived, the economics of the tunnel made a great deal of sense. Today those conditions have dramatically changed.

It was first proposed in 1939, but serious survey work did not begin until after World War II. The tunnel idea gained great impetus in 1954, when a typhoon roared through the often stormy Tsugaru Strait, sinking five ferry boats run by the Japan National Railway and killing 1,430 people.

Two years later, a government study pronouced the idea technically feasible. Construction, they said, would take 10 years and cost 60 billion yen ($167 million at 1956 exchange rates).

The tunnel, carrying a railway line, would replace the Seikan Ferry, then the only mass transportation between Hokkaido and the rest of Japan.

Today, 30 years later, the tunnel is still two years away from the first train run. The total cost is estimated now at $7 billion. The annual payments on the construction debt will be about $600 million for the next 40 years. The deficit-ridden national railway, which the government plans to break up and sell off next year, was to pay that cost.

While the tunnel costs mounted, the economic basis for it drastically changed. The ferry, which carries both railway cars and passengers, was overtaken by the commercial jet. The tunnel would cut four hours off a 16-hour rail and ferry trip from Tokyo to Sapporo, Hokkaido's capital. A jet flies the same distance in an hour and a half.

The air route has become the main transport link, including for freight traffic. Between 1975 and 1984, passenger and freight traffic on the Seikan ferries dropped by about 50 percent.

The national railway remodeled the tunnel to carry the famed Shinkansen, the high speed ``bullet train,'' to try to counter the air competition. The bullet train would take just 5 hours and 40 minutes from Tokyo to Sapporo.

But in the early '80s, the government was forced to abandon the bullet train idea because of the cost of extending the line from its current terminus in northern Honshu.

If the tunnel cannot pay for itself directly, what is its economic justification now? One answer is that it is key to the future development of Hokkaido. Japan's northern island remains a relatively underpopulated and underdeveloped area in comparison with the rest of the country.

According to the island's young, dynamic governor, Tadahiro Yokomichi, the tunnel will change Hokkaido's feeling of being ignored. ``It is quite meaningful to have Hokkaido connected with the mainland . . . in the sense of having the people of Honshu change their view of Hokkaido. They regard us as people living in a colony,'' he said in a recent interview.

Ultimately, the value of the Seikan Tunnel may be as a showcase for Japanese engineering prowess. Indeed, engineers and railway experts from around the world have already made pilgramages to the tunnel. It is a model not only for the English Channel project but also for similar proposals to build tunnels under the Bosporus Strait in Turkey and the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco.

Seikan may have proved that engineers' dreams can indeed be realized. It may not, however, have proved that they are worth the cost.

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