What is Underground Tunneling and Different Types of Tunnels

A Comprehensive Guide: Underground Tunneling

Underground tunneling is a fascinating engineering feat that has been pivotal in shaping modern infrastructure. From transportation networks to utility installations, underground tunnels play a crucial role in connecting cities, providing essential services, and even preserving historical sites. In this comprehensive guide, we delve into the intricacies of underground tunneling, exploring its various types, construction methods, applications, and more. 

Underground tunneling refers to the process of excavating passages or conduits beneath the earth’s surface for various purposes, such as transportation, utilities, or mining. There are several types of tunnels, each designed to serve specific functions, such as road tunnels, railway tunnels, utility tunnels, and mining tunnels.

What does Underground Tunnel mean?

A tunnel is an underground passage enclosed except at its entrances and exits, excavated through soil, earth, or rock. These tunnels can vary widely in size, purpose, and construction method. They are often used for transportation, such as subway tunnels for trains or road tunnels for vehicles. Underground tunnels can also be used for utilities like water or sewage systems or pedestrian walkways in urban areas. 

How is an Underground Tunnel Built?

Underground tunneling construction requires careful planning, excavation, and structural reinforcement for safe and durable infrastructure development below the surface.

Initial Groundwork and Design

The construction of an underground tunnel begins with meticulous planning and geological surveying to determine the optimal route, conditions, depth, best construction method, and structural requirements for the tunnel’s intended purpose.

Excavation and Trenching

After design approval, excavation and trenching commence, involving the removal of soil, rock, or other materials to create the tunnel’s initial cavity and shape. A trench is excavated with precision to reach the necessary depth while temporary support is put in place to avoid any potential tunnel collapses.

Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) Method

The Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) utilises advanced machinery to excavate tunnels efficiently. TBMs bore through soil or rock, simultaneously installing precast concrete segments to form the tunnel lining, reducing manual labour and accelerating construction timelines. The precision and efficiency of Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs) make them well-suited for constructing tunnels with smooth walls and minimal impact on the surrounding environment.

Drilling and Blasting

Traditional methods involve using controlled explosions to break up rock formations, followed by debris removal and the installation of support structures. Although this approach can be disruptive and less predictable than using a TBM, it becomes necessary in conditions unsuitable for TBM operations. On the other hand, the Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) utilises advanced machinery to excavate tunnels efficiently. TBMs bore through soil or rock, simultaneously installing precast concrete segments to form the tunnel lining, reducing manual labour and accelerating construction timelines.

Ground Support Installation 

Once excavated, the tunnel’s walls and roof require structural support. Methods like rock bolts, shotcrete (sprayable concrete), or steel ribs and arches are installed to prevent tunnel collapse and ensure stability.

Secondary Lining and Infrastructure 

After establishing the primary support, a secondary concrete lining may be applied to enhance strength and achieve a polished, uniform surface. A secondary lining is often made of concrete and is installed inside the tunnel. Additionally, infrastructure such as lighting, ventilation systems, emergency exits, and drainage channels are integrated for operational efficiency and safety.

Waterproofing and Insulation 

Waterproofing membranes and insulation materials are applied to protect against water infiltration and maintain optimal conditions inside the tunnel during underground tunneling. This ensures the longevity, safety, and functionality of the underground structure.

Final Touches 

The final phase includes laying roadbeds, tracks, or appropriate surfaces based on the tunnel’s function and conducting comprehensive testing of all systems to ensure operational safety. This step is vital as it prepares the tunnel for its intended use, whether it’s for vehicular traffic, railway operations, or pedestrian pathways.

Moreover, the final testing of all installed systems is conducted to guarantee operational safety. This testing phase involves checking the functionality of electrical systems, ventilation, lighting, drainage, and emergency response mechanisms. Cutting-edge technologies like laser scanning and ground-penetrating radar are employed to uphold stringent safety protocols. Any issues identified during testing are addressed and rectified to ensure that the tunnel meets regulatory standards and can operate seamlessly. 

Underground tunneling is a multifaceted process involving geology, engineering, and advanced technology, necessitating a skilled team of specialists for successful completion.Underground Tunnels - Argentium

How Come Underground Tunnels Don’t Collapse?

Underground tunnels are designed and constructed with structural integrity measures to prevent collapse.  It requires meticulous planning, considering surface conditions like soft ground or hard rock. Engineers must account for the increasing pressure from soil and rock layers, which can compress the tunnel’s materials. To prevent tunnels collapse, tunnels are reinforced with materials like steel or concrete, ensuring stability for vehicles and people. Additional support methods include metal rock bolts and resin, which are essential for securing tunnels and maintaining safety standards despite the costly nature of these measures. 

The combination of careful planning, robust materials, support structures, and monitoring protocols ensures that underground tunnels remain safe and resilient against tunnels collapse.

Do Tunnels Ever Collapse?

Tunnels can collapse under certain circumstances, although modern engineering practices aim to minimise this risk. Factors such as geological conditions, improper construction, inadequate support systems, or unforeseen events like natural disasters can contribute to tunnel collapses. However, thorough planning, careful monitoring, use of advanced technology, and regular maintenance help mitigate these risks and ensure the structural integrity of tunnels. Engineering standards and regulations also play a crucial role in preventing collapses and ensuring the safety of underground infrastructure.

Ancient Tunneling 

Ancient underground tunneling dates back thousands of years and showcases the impressive engineering achievements of early civilisations. From the ancient mines of Egypt and Mesopotamia to the elaborate tunnel systems of the Incas and Romans, these structures served various purposes like mining, water supply, defence, and transportation. Techniques such as rock-cutting, timber support, and manual labour were employed, showcasing the ingenuity and perseverance of ancient builders. These tunnels, some of which still exist today, provide valuable insights into the technological capabilities and societal needs of ancient cultures, highlighting their innovative solutions to the challenges of their time.

Modern Tunnel Construction

The evolution of tunnel construction, spanning ancient eras to the Middle Ages and modern times, reveals fascinating advancements. Modern tunnel construction employs advanced engineering techniques and technology to create efficient and durable underground passageways. Tunnels are excavated in varied materials, from soft soil to solid rock. Methods vary based on surface conditions, tunnel length, depth, and other factors. The primary tunnel construction techniques encompass cut-and-cover, bored, and immersed methods.

Cut and Cover

Cut-and-cover tunnels involve excavating a shallow trench, requiring sturdy overhead support capable of bearing loads such as buildings, roadways, subway lines, utility passages, and underground structures in densely populated areas. There are two primary cut-and-cover methods:

  • Bottom-up method: In this approach, a trench is dug, and the tunnel is built within it. Support materials like concrete, precast arches, or corrugated steel arches are used. Historically, brickwork was common.
  • Top-down method: In this method, support walls and capping beams are constructed at ground level. The tunnel roof is then built with precast beams or concrete. The surface is reinstated, leaving access openings.


The bored underground tunneling construction method involves excavating tunnels deep underground without disturbing the surface. This technique is commonly used for long-distance tunnels, such as those for highways, railways, or water conveyance systems. Bored tunnels are created using Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs), which are massive machines that drill through rock or soil and simultaneously install tunnel linings. 

This method minimises environmental disruptions and surface activities compared to cut-and-cover tunnels. Bored tunnels are known for their efficiency in creating straight, smooth-walled passages, making them ideal for high-speed transportation systems and infrastructure projects requiring minimal surface interference.


The immersed underground tunneling construction method involves installing a submerged tube in a water body using concrete-filled steel elements built underwater. These segments are prefabricated at one location, transported to the tunnel site, and submerged into position. They are then interconnected to form a continuous tunnel structure. 

Immersed tunnels are commonly used for underwater crossings, such as river crossings or connections between islands. They provide a stable and durable passage while minimising environmental impact and disruptions to surrounding areas. 

Immersed tunnel construction is known for creating underwater passages with minimal disturbance to marine ecosystems. The precise engineering and installation process ensures that these tunnels withstand environmental forces like water currents and seismic activity. Additionally, immersed tunnels often feature advanced waterproofing and corrosion protection measures to enhance their longevity and structural integrity in challenging underwater conditions.

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