Point of VIEW.

A purely analytical perception...



Continued from pg. 2

The Seikan Railroad Tunnel


One of the infrastructure projects that Japan became involved with was called the Seikan Railroad Tunnel. Japan needed a way to connect its main island of Honshu with the neighboring island of Hokkaido.  Historically, the two islands had been connected by a series of ferries but during inclement weather, which was not unusual in the Tsugaru Strait, transportation became questionable.  However, in 1954, a typhoon that appeared as if from nowhere, sank five ferry boats, creating a loss of life of over 1,400 people.  This created a public outcry and the engineers went back to the drawing board.  At the time, there was airline service, but it was then highly expensive and to some degree time consuming, if only because of the fact that from a logistical point of view, the airport was a substantial ride from, for example, downtown Tokyo. 


Engineers came up with a prodigious program to construct a tunnel connecting the two islands. When finished it would become the longest railway tunnel in the world and in spite of the logistical and architectural problems that were foreseen, there was no question in anyone’s mind that the project would get the green light.  The tunnel got its name by combining two characters: Aomori City’s “Ao (Sei)” and Hakodate City’s “Hako (Kan)” These are the cities at the beginning and at the end of the tunnel, depending which direction you are starting from. It took them ten years to come up with a plan that the bureaucrats in Tokyo would accept.  This was probably due to the fact that the proposed tunnel was massively expensive; and even at that time, it was projected to cost approximately $600 million and it would take about ten years to build. Many politicians in Japan felt that another ferry disaster would cause the government itself to fall and for that reason, the project went ahead. 


Construction began in 1964 and, rather than ten years, the work took 25 years to complete[1].  Instead of costing a tad under $600 million, the final figure came in at $7 billion.  It was the most expensive infrastructure project that had ever been completed in Japan to that time.  The year was now 1988 and thirty-three workers were killed during construction in various accidents.  While this is a terrible loss of life, relative to the massive nature of the project, the Japanese in stated that  the loss of life was within actuarial limits.


While the tunnel was originally designed to carry the “Shinkansen”, the bullet train, on a route between the two islands, by the time the tunnel had been completed, 15-years late and $6 million over budget, the country could no longer afford the cost of connecting it up.  This oversight added substantially to the project’s cost, because the necessary high-strength rails, gentle curves and slopes that were incorporated into the development, thinking that the bullet train would eventually be hooked up, proved to be an unnecessary expense.  Thus, the project became a freight and passenger tunnel, but it was in no way connected to the high-speed rail line.  A second tunnel had to be created as well; this was the service tunnel or pilot tunnel.  Once that was completed, the tunnel itself was started and crews began working from opposite directions.


The completed tunnel was three-stories high and 800 feet below the seabed.  This makes the Ao Hako tunnel easily the deepest ever constructed.  Old time techniques had to be used in its construction: drilling, blasting and then mucking because of the uncertainties of the geology that construction people were drilling through, the much faster technique of using a boring machine was just not an option under these geologically uncertain conditions.  The seabed had been wracked by earthquakes over the years, and there was not enough data available at the time to determine exactly what the workers would be drilling through and when would they be doing it.


Even using the more the more conservative drilling method, a patch of soft rock was collided with in 1976, and a “blowout” occurred causing an avalanche of water to flood various sections of the tunnel.  The actual water flow was 80-tons a minute and it took round-the-clock construction crews over two months to clean up the damage.  When the project was finished, 60 miles of tunnels had been created, including the pilot and service tunnels, which now double as maintenance and escape tunnels.  The main tunnel, runs a total distance of 33 miles, making it easily the longest railroad tunnel in the world.[2]


The undersea segment of the tunnel is 14.5 miles long, which has only recently been eclipsed by the Chunnel under the English Channel.  Japanese construction people have estimated that 13,800,000 million people were involved in various parts of the construction process, which would surpass the number of men under arms in both the Japanese and United States armies in World War II.  We know of no other project in world history that required that kind of logistical support.  Massive projects like the Great Wall of China and the Ho Che Minh Trail, while utilizing almost every available body available, didn’t even come close.  It is even doubtful that the population of the world when the Great Wall was built came anywhere close to the 13.8 million people that Japan has estimated were employed on this one tunnel.  This number of workers actually represented one-quarter of the working population of the country at that time.  

Moreover, the two stations (Tappi Kaitei and Yoshioka Kaitei) at either end of the tunnel are both under the water, probably making them the only two submerged railroad stations ever built.


Some other interesting statistics that were released,  

1.                 3,000 tons of explosives were used;  

2.                 168,000 tons of steel were sued, enough to build 42 Tokyo Towers;  

3.                 11,649 cubic feet of material were excavated from the site, 5l1 times the volume of Tokyo Dome;  

4.                Over 61 million cubic feet of concrete were poured;  

5.                 The concrete tunnel wall is approximately 1 meter thick;  

6.                 30 tons of water seep into the tunnel every minute;  

7.                 12 huge pumps are used to bring water seepage back to the surface;  

8.                 765 miles of electric cables were used;  

9.                 21,540 slabs of track were laid;  

10.             847.000 Meters of injected soil was used, 1.6 times the volume of the Kasumigaseki Building.


Fundamentally, historians are fairly familiar with the Japanese island of Honshu, which is the home of Tokyo, and most other large cities, but Hokkaido is a different story.  Newsday talked about what the island looked like back in 1988 when the service opened for business[3].  

“…Hokkaido, for one thing, is Japan’s wild west, a still undeveloped island of exotic people (Japan’s blue-eyed aborigines) and scenery (right out of Siberia, which sits next door on the Asian mainland).  On a clear day, it looks nervously across a narrow channel right into the Soviet Union.”  

It would have seemed that the tunnel would have been an extremely valuable addition to Japan’s infrastructure and a revenue-producing project.  However, substantial usage coupled with severe conditions has caused equipment to wear out much faster than had originally been estimated.  Re-construction has already begun at a massive cost.  Back in 1954 when the original plans were started, engineers did not expect that the airplane was ever going to become a serious contender to compete with the country’s railroads.  However, when construction actually began some two decades later, to some degree the handwriting was already on the wall relative to air travel.  The bureaucrats ran new numbers that showed the airplane replacing the railroad as the choice method of getting between the two locations. In spite of this fact, government officials order the project to move ahead if only because Japan was then in an economic downturn and the construction job would put a lot of people to work.  Of course, at that time, the cost estimate was only 10% of the final cost. 

Amazingly, the number of people that are now using the railroad is substantially less that the number that were using the more economical ferries at the time when construction had begun.  When the tunnel was finished in 1988, it carried over 3 million people; which figure has been receding regularly since and today stands at around 1.9 million, almost 200,000 less then the 2.07 million passengers the Seikan ferries registered in their final year.  On the other hand, the number of flights arriving each day at the airport in Hokkaido in 1988 stood at 44, while today, it has tripled to 117.  Hokkaido is no longer the Wild West.  Extrapolating these figures, you can see that almost 80 percent of the passenger traffic is now handled by plane. 

Moreover, since construction began, ferry service has changed dramatically, new aerodynamically stable jetfoil boats have been developed that are capable of either riding out the weather or beating it.  To make things even worse for the tunnel, the trip is more convenient, takes about half the time, and is cheaper.  “As for fares, the high-speed ferry costs 2,130 yen one way, which is far lower than the 5,340 Yen it costs to take the limited express train and the 3,150 Yen to take the rapid train.  For the most part, JR Hokkaido, the company that owns the train service, has been non-plused by what has gone on in spite of a lack of traffic and increasing losses. Riding the train is pleasant enough with the rounded curves and prolonged grades.  The temperature of the system is kept at a comfortable 68 degrees and massive ventilators keep the air both pleasant and smoke free. 

“Long rails have been used throughout the line because of the smoother ride they offer and to minimize maintenance.  In particular, the signal circuit for the Seikan Tunnel is based on an uninsulated rail circuit, which does not require insulated connections, and so rails were welded together to form a single rail that runs the length of the tunnel.  This “super long rail” is the longest single rail in the world.“[4]

 However, the Japanese are pulling in their belts and have had enough of these kinds of infrastructure fiascos.  The railroad people are now answering to a very unhappy government.  However, this project, along with other massive construction schemes begun by a full-employment oriented government, no longer make sense and the reigning-in process is beginning.  JR Hokkaido, wanting to show the government that they are indeed concerned about what is going on, put carpeting on their trains and created a train devoted entirely to karaoke.  The chances that this will succeed are just about non-existent and the tunnel that is the longest of its kind will continue to be an amazing feat of architecture but an economic debacle. 


[1] Thirty-five years, when you consider that the original blueprints for the tunnel were produced in 1954.

[2] Switzerland is planning a railroad tunnel that will be dug through a mountain pass that will be longer when completed. This tunnel will be much easier to dig because the boring machine can be utilized.

[3] “Travel, Newest Joy for Rail Buffs: World’ Deepest Station Never mind that it’s in the middle of nowhere on Japan’s Hokkaido Island. Bill and Bonnie Sexton, Newsday, 3/13/1988.

[4] The Seikan Tunnel, Aomori Prefect.


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