Tunnels are generally grouped in four broad categories, depending on the material through which they pass: soft ground, consisting of soil and very weak rock; hard rock; soft rock, such as shale, chalk, and friable sandstone; and subaqueous. While these four broad types of ground condition require very different methods of excavation and ground support, nevertheless, nearly all tunneling operations involve certain basic procedures: investigation, excavation and materials transport, ground support, and environmental control. Similarly, tunnels for mining and for civil-engineering projects share the basic procedures but differ greatly in the design approach toward permanence, owing to their differing purposes. Many mining tunnels have been planned only for minimum-cost temporary use during ore extraction, although the growing desire of surface owners for legal protection against subsequent tunnel collapse may cause this to change. By contrast, most civil-engineering or public-works tunnels involve continued human occupancy plus full protection of adjacent owners and are much more conservatively designed for permanent safety. In all tunnels, geologic conditions play the dominant role in governing the acceptability of construction methods and the practicality of different designs.

Geologic investigation. Thorough geologic analysis is essential in order to assess the relative risks of different locations and to reduce the uncertainties of ground and water conditions at the location chosen. In addition to soil and rock types, key factors include the initial defects controlling behaviour of the rock mass; size of rock block between joints; weak beds and zones, including faults, shear zones, and altered areas weakened by weathering or thermal action; groundwater, including flow pattern and pressure; plus several special hazards, such as heat, gas, and earthquake risk. For mountain regions the large cost and long time required for deep borings generally limit their number; but much can be learned from thorough aerial and surface surveys, plus well-logging and geophysical techniques developed in the oil industry.

Excavation and materials handling. Excavation of the ground within the tunnel bore may be either semicontinuous, as by handheld power tools or mining machine, or cyclic, as by drilling and blasting methods for harder rock. Here each cycle involves drilling, loading explosive, blasting, ventilating fumes, and excavation of the blasted rock (called mucking). Commonly, the mucker is a type of front-end loader that moves the broken rock onto a belt conveyor that dumps it into a hauling system of cars or trucks. As all operations are concentrated at the heading, congestion is chronic, and much ingenuity has gone into designing equipment able to work in a small space. Since progress depends on the rate of heading advance, it is often facilitated by mining several headings simultaneously, as opening up intermediate headings from shafts or from adits driven to provide extra points of access for longer tunnels.

For smaller diameters and longer tunnels, a narrow-gauge railroad is commonly employed to take out the muck and bring in workers and construction material. For larger-size bores of short to moderate length, trucks are generally preferred.

Ground support. The dominant factor in all phases of the tunneling system is the extent of support needed to hold the surrounding ground safely. Engineers must consider the type of support, its strength, and how soon it must be installed after excavation. The key factor in timing support installation is so-called stand-up time— i.e., how long the ground will safely stand by itself at the heading, thus providing a period for installing supports. In soft ground, stand-up time can vary from seconds in such soils as loose stand up-to hours in such ground as cohesive clay and even drops to zero in flowing ground below the water table, where inward seepage moves loose sand into the tunnel. Stand-up time in rock may vary from minutes in raveling ground (closely fractured rock where pieces gradually loosen and fall) up to days in moderately jointed rock (joint spacing in feet) and may even be measured in centuries in nearly intact rock, where the rock-block size (between joints) equals or exceeds size of the tunnel opening, thus requiring no support.

In early tunnels, timber was used for the initial or temporary support, followed by a permanent lining of brick or stone masonry. Since steel became available, it has been widely used as the first temporary stage or primary support. For protection against corrosion, it is nearly always encased in concrete as a second stage or final lining. Steel-rib support with timber blocking outside has been widely employed in rock tunnels.

Environmental control.In all but the shortest tunnels, control of the environment is essential to provide safe working conditions. Ventilation is vital, both to provide fresh air and to remove explosive gases such as methane and noxious gases, including blast fumes. While the problem is reduced by using diesel engines with exhaust scrubbers and by selecting only low-fume explosives for underground use, long tunnels involve a major ventilating plant that employs a forced draft through lightweight pipes up to three feet in diameter and with booster fans at intervals.

Electronic equipment in tunnels is prohibited, since stray currents may activate blasting circuits. Thunderstorms may also produce stray currents and require special precautions.

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