9 Leading Tunnel Construction Methods

9 Leading Tunnel Construction Methods

Tunnel construction has become a cornerstone of modern infrastructure, facilitating transportation and utility networks worldwide. The methods used in constructing tunnels vary significantly, each tailored to specific geological conditions and project requirements. Understanding these methods is crucial for anyone involved in engineering or urban planning, as it provides insight into the complexities and innovations that drive these massive undertakings. 

 In this blog, we’ll explore nine leading tunnel construction methods, highlighting their unique processes and applications. Whether you’re an engineering enthusiast or a professional, this guide will offer valuable knowledge about the intricacies of tunnel construction.

What is Tunnel Construction?

Tunnel construction involves creating underground passages for various purposes, including transportation, utilities, and mining. It requires advanced engineering techniques and thorough planning to ensure safety and efficiency. The process can be challenging due to the varying geological conditions encountered. Modern tunnel construction employs a range of engineering methods, each designed to address specific environmental and structural requirements, ensuring that tunnels are stable, durable, and safe for their intended use.

Let’s Know What is Tunnel Construction Methods

Tunnel construction methods refer to the diverse techniques used to create tunnels, each suited to different ground conditions and project needs. These methods range from traditional excavation to advanced technological approaches, ensuring versatility and adaptability in various environments. Understanding these methods is essential for selecting the right approach for a specific project, considering factors such as soil type, tunnel length, and environmental impact. In the following sections, we will delve into nine leading tunnel construction methods, offering a comprehensive overview of their applications and benefits.

Types of Tunnel Construction Methods

Tunnels are a viable alternative when building a bridge is not feasible due to space constraints. They are also beneficial in situations where land acquisition is challenging. The earliest known tunnel dates back to the 8th century BC. Since then, tunnel construction methods have significantly evolved, with the most substantial advancements occurring in the 20th century. These developments are largely attributed to new equipment, a scientific approach, and a better understanding of geology.

There are nine tunnel construction methods, each designed to suit different project needs and geological conditions.  Furthermore, each tunnel construction method comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. The speed of tunneling, ground conditions, and economic feasibility vary depending on the chosen method.

Cut and Cover Construction Method

Tunneling Method - Argentium

The Cut & Cover tunnel construction method involves excavating a trench from the surface and then constructing the tunnel within it before covering it back with the excavated material. This method is typically used for shallow tunnels and is one of the oldest and simplest techniques. Cut & Cover can be executed in two primary ways: Bottom to Top and Top to Bottom. Each approach has its own set of procedures and is chosen based on project requirements and site conditions.

Bottom to Top

In the Bottom to Top approach, the trench is fully excavated before tunnel construction begins. The tunnel structure is then built from the bottom of the trench upwards. Once the tunnel is complete, the trench is backfilled and restored to its original state or as planned.

Top to Bottom 

The Top to Bottom approach involves constructing the tunnel roof first by excavating only a shallow trench. The tunnel walls and floor are subsequently constructed below the roof. This method minimizes surface disruption and is often used in urban areas to reduce the impact on existing infrastructure.


  • Cost-effective for shallow tunnels

  • Simpler construction process

  • Suitable for urban areas with limited space


  • Limited to shallow depths

  • Significant surface disruption

  • Potential environmental impact due to extensive excavation

Tunnel Construction by Boring Machine

Tunnel Construction Methods - Argentium

Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs) are highly efficient for constructing tunnels through various ground conditions. These machines automate the tunneling process, providing precise and rapid excavation. TBMs come in different types tailored for specific soil and rock conditions, ensuring optimal performance and safety. Here, we explore three main types of TBMs: Earth Pressure Balanced Shield, Bentonite Shield, and Rock TBM.

Earth Pressure Balanced Shield

The Earth Pressure Balanced Shield TBM balances earth pressure using excavated material, making it ideal for soft ground with high water content, preventing ground settlement and water inflow.

Bentonite Shield

The Bentonite Shield TBM uses bentonite slurry to stabilize the tunnel face, suitable for soft, unstable ground, and effectively controls groundwater pressure, ensuring safe and continuous excavation.

Rock TBM 

The Rock TBM is designed for hard rock conditions, utilizing a rotating cutterhead equipped with disc cutters to efficiently break and remove rock, ensuring smooth and rapid tunnel construction.


  • High precision and efficiency

  • Reduced surface disruption

  • Suitable for various ground conditions

  • Enhanced safety and control


  • High initial cost and maintenance

  • Limited flexibility in complex geology

  • Requires extensive logistical support

  • Significant power consumption

New Austrian Tunnelling Method (NATM)

The New Austrian Tunnelling Method (NATM) is a modern approach to tunnel construction that utilizes the surrounding rock mass to stabilize the tunnel. This method relies on careful monitoring and flexible design adjustments to optimize support systems, making them highly adaptable to varying geological conditions. By employing shotcrete, rock bolts, and other reinforcement techniques, NATM allows for real-time modifications based on observed ground behavior. This method is particularly effective in complex ground conditions, providing a cost-efficient and safe way to construct tunnels with minimal environmental impact.


  • Adaptable to diverse geological conditions

  • Cost-effective due to reduced material usage

  • Real-time monitoring and adjustments enhance safety

  • Minimal environmental disruption

  • Efficient use of in-situ materials for stabilization


  • Requires skilled labor and continuous monitoring

  • Initial setup can be time-consuming

  • Not suitable for highly unstable ground conditions

  • Potential delays due to necessary adjustments

  • High dependency on precise geological assessments

Drilling & Blasting Tunnelling Method

The Drilling & Blasting method is a traditional technique used primarily in hard rock conditions. This method involves drilling holes into the rock, filling them with explosives, and then blasting to break the rock into manageable pieces. After blasting, the debris is removed, and the tunnel is reinforced. There are three main approaches within this method: Full Face, Heading & Benching, and Drift Tunnelling, each suited to different tunnel sizes and conditions.

Full Face 

Full Face tunnelling involves blasting the entire tunnel face in one go, suitable for small tunnels with stable rock.

Heading & Benching

In Heading & Benching, the tunnel is excavated in two stages: the upper part (heading) first, followed by the lower part (benching).

Drift Tunnelling

Drift Tunnelling involves creating a smaller, initial tunnel (drift) to provide access and stability before enlarging to the full tunnel size.


  • Effective for hard rock conditions

  • Flexible in various tunnel sizes

  • Allows precise control over tunnel shape

  • Suitable for remote locations without TBM access


  • High noise and vibration levels

  • Potential safety risks from explosives

  • Slower progress compared to mechanized methods

  • Requires extensive ventilation and dust control systems

Clay Kicking Tunnel Construction

Clay Kicking is a traditional manual tunnelling method primarily used in soft, cohesive clay soils. It involves using a specialized tool, the clay kicker, to cut through the clay. This method is often employed for constructing small-diameter tunnels, particularly in urban areas where minimal ground disturbance is crucial. Though less common today due to mechanized alternatives, clay kicking remains valuable for specific projects requiring precision and low-impact excavation.


  • Minimal ground disturbance

  • Low-cost method for small tunnels

  • Precise control over excavation

  • Suitable for urban environments


  • Labour-intensive and slow process

  • Limited to soft, cohesive soils

  • Not suitable for large-diameter tunnels

  • Requires skilled workers familiar with the technique

Shaft Method of Tunnel Construction 

The Shaft Method involves constructing vertical shafts to access deeper layers for tunnelling. This method is often used when surface disruption must be minimized, and deep tunnelling is required.


  • Minimal surface disruption

  • Ideal for deep tunnels

  • Provides direct vertical access


  • High cost of shaft construction

  • Limited by shaft diameter

  • Requires significant site preparation

Pipe Jacking Tunnelling Method 

The Pipe Jacking method involves installing pre-fabricated pipes into the ground by hydraulic jacks from a drive shaft. The pipes are pushed forward as excavation proceeds, making this method suitable for constructing tunnels under existing infrastructure with minimal surface disruption. It’s commonly used for sewer, water, and utility installations. This trenchless technique is highly effective for small to medium-sized tunnels, particularly in urban areas where maintaining surface activity is crucial.


  • Minimal surface disruption

  • High precision and control

  • Suitable for urban environments

  • Effective for small to medium-sized tunnels


  • Limited to shorter tunnel lengths

  • High initial setup cost

  • Requires precise alignment and control

  • Not suitable for all ground conditions

Box Jacking Tunnelling Method 

The Box Jacking method involves pushing a pre-fabricated rectangular or square box structure through the ground using hydraulic jacks. This technique is commonly used for constructing underpasses, pedestrian subways, and other short-distance tunnels beneath roads or railways. Box Jacking allows for minimal surface disruption and is particularly effective in soft ground conditions. It provides a quick and efficient solution for projects where traditional excavation methods are impractical.


  • Minimal surface disruption

  • Fast and efficient construction

  • Suitable for short-distance tunnels

  • Effective in soft ground conditions


  • Limited to short tunnel lengths

  • High initial setup cost

  • Requires precise alignment and control

  • Not suitable for hard or rocky soils

Underwater Tunnel Construction

What is Tunnel Construction - Argentium

Underwater tunnel construction involves creating tunnels beneath bodies of water such as rivers, lakes, or seas. This complex process often employs methods like Immersed Tube Tunneling or Submerged Floating Tunnels. These techniques require advanced engineering and technology to ensure the tunnel’s stability and watertightness. Underwater tunnels are crucial for connecting regions separated by water, providing vital transportation and utility links while minimizing environmental and surface disruption.



  • Enables direct transportation routes

  • Minimal surface disruption

  • Efficient connection between separated regions


  • High construction and maintenance costs

  • Complex engineering and logistical challenges

  • Potential environmental impact

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