Tunnels are the future, but a distant future

Much excitement was generated when news broke of two road tunnels being considered linking Thimphu to Paro or Wangdue.

Some were already thinking of the possibilities of working in Thimphu but living in either of the two dzonkhags.

However, not much progress has been made since the news broke.

It was eventually decided that the Thimphu-Wangdue tunnel makes more sense as it would shorten travel time to many more dzongkhags. A few aerial surveys were even carried out.

However, the obstacle is not the mountains or the young geology. It is budget. The costs of building a tunnel are astronomically higher when compared to roads.

There are several benefits to building tunnels, especially for a country like Bhutan. Travel time and costs can be dramatically cutdown. Landslides, a perennial plague every summer, and sometimes even in the winter, are avoided. The environment is not as affected as mountains are not scarred and  less trees are cut down.

Switzerland, which shares similar geography has fully utilised the use of tunnels for transportation and is reaping the benefits. We recognise the benefits.

But can we afford to go for tunnels when we can achieve close to the same results by building better roads?

Any driver would recognise that our existing national highways can be further improved with further investment. Measures are being pursued to improve them. A road masterplan does exists.

Some roads can be shortened further by eliminating bends which could shave travel time even further. Short rather than long tunnels, and bridges, can be utillised on certain roads especially when it could reduce an unnecessary detour.

More funds could also be invested in putting in place measures beyond retaining walls to slide proof roads.

It is also important to know that some of our communities are yet to be connected with motor roads and bringing roads to all communities should take precedence over connecting Thimphu with another route.

In the long run, when the country has funds, or if a donor country is willing to support the construction, then long road tunnels can be pursued. Imagine driving to Bumthang in an hour or two, or driving to Thimphu from Trashigang in the morning only to return in the evening. The cost savings on time, fuel, and other related expenditures will be significant. The environment too will benefit with less emissions.

1 reply
  1. irfan
    irfan says:

    Rats like to dig their way through holes…a big cat likes the comfort of natural mountain caves…fishes like to swim…and when most birds are known for their strengths in flying; the monkeys are the experts in climbing from trees to trees in the wild. Now before you all get angry to such a bad joke; let me assure you that I only want to point out that we as humans have mastered the art of maximising our strengths and minimising our weaknesses when it comes to travelling across endless water, air and land. So it’s an exciting news that we will be travelling through tunnels in future if everything goes as planned.

    Switzerland is mentioned here for their achievements in constructing world class tunnels. But when we discuss geography of Europe and natural disasters like earthquakes; Switzerland has a moderate earthquake hazard. The last major earthquake measuring 6 or above was recorded way back in 1946 near Sierre in Canton of Wallis. As per information maintained on SED (Schweizerischer Erdbedendienst) website; most of the earthquakes recorded between 1975 and 2010 were measuring below 2.5 on the scale. The geography of Bhutan and the Himalayan region is very different. But this is true that use of bridges and short tunnels in our road construction is going to improve the overall highway network and its utility values. The design and architecture of such bridges will also be a significant factor and same is the matter with any future road tunnels.

    A healthy and constructive debate for road tunnels over the usual mountain highways is bound to become as intriguing as debating pros and cons of a Run-off-the-River hydro project against that of a large storage dam project in the given geography. Even in our hydro projects, we have all the head and tail race tunnels getting constructed. Economies of Scale always are not very cost friendly and if it’s hydro power generation, a lot will depend on availability of water head and flow of the river.

    When it comes to roads and construction of a future tunnel road, a lot will also depend on flow of traffic at that given point of time. And a tunnel road needs to be operated, maintained and serviced. Similar efforts can also be tried out in case of our usual mountain highways when maintenance brings financial challenges. A lot also gets talked about domestic air connectivity where innovative business models can be experimented for sustaining the airport infrastructure, if not the operation.

    But whenever we talk transportation and its related economies of scales or scopes; somewhere a few things never get addressed in the dark…the economics of opportunities and expectations.

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