Methods of tunneling vary with the nature of the material to be cut through. When soft earth is encountered, the excavation is timbered for support as the work advances; the timbers are sometimes left as a permanent lining for the tunnel. Another method is to cut two parallel excavations in which the side walls are constructed first. Arches connecting them are then built as the material between them is extracted. Portions of the unexcavated center, left temporarily for support, may be removed later. A tunnel cut through rock frequently requires no lining. Hard rock is removed by blasting.
In constructing tunnels under rivers, the ordinary methods can be used as long as a stratum of impermeable material lies between the tunnel and the riverbed. In all cases, however, pumping equipment must be installed. Where mud, quicksand, or permeable earth is present in underwater tunneling, it becomes necessary to provide some means of holding back the water while the enclosing sections of the tunnel are placed in position. For this purpose the shield was devised and first used in 1825 by the French-born engineer Sir Marc I. Brunel when boring between Wapping and Rotherhithe, in England. Considered unsuccessful, the device was not employed again until 1869, when the British engineer James H. Greathead and the American inventor Alfred E. Beach developed improvements at about the same time. Their shields were metal cylinders fitting around the outside of the tunnel, the forward end closed by a diaphragm plate. As the rock or earth was cut away, the shield was shoved forward into the earth by hydraulic rams, compressed air being used to keep seepage to a minimum. The use of the pneumatic shield is now universal in tunneling under rivers. The actual cutting is performed by huge rotating cutter heads, each with up to fifty separate cutters, capable of penetrating 10 mm (1/2 in.) per revolution.
River-crossing tunnels are also constructed by dredging a trench in the riverbed and then lowering prefabricated tunnel sections through the water into the trench, where they are connected to each other. The trench and tunnel are then covered over. In 1969, a tunnel was constructed across the Schelde River in Belgium, using sections 330 ft (100 m) long. Often, to speed construction, work is started at both ends. This poses no problem with the cut-and-cover method, but when the tunnel is bored from within, it must be assured that the tubes will actually meet in the center. Modern methods accomplish this with high precision.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.