Tunnel work is dark, deep and potentially dangerous. We went underground with Norway’s most experienced tunnel pros.
Driving under the fjords
Route E39 in Norway winds through spectacular coastal landscape. But with seven ferry crossings, it is a time-consuming drive. Now, Norway embarks on the country’s biggest infrastructure project in modern history. A pioneering tunnel and bridge construction will cut travel time by half.
The sun is shining on the cold, glittery water of Boknafjorden. Two ferries, one in each direction, are just about to leave the shore. On the surface, all is serene, but a revolution has begun underground. A drilling-rig manifests itself like a giant spider in a tunnel 150 meters below sea level. Saltwater is dripping from the ceiling and one can smell the scent of ammonium in the air. The scent lingers since the latest detonation. Another section of the new tunnel is about to be carved out. The torch lamp on Arne Oddvar Haugeland’s helmet throws some light on the walls. He is foreman operator and has worked in tunnels his whole career, 42 years.
“What can I say, I have always enjoyed it. To drive the machines down here, I am proud of that skill,” he smiles.
Meter by meter Haugeland and his team are excavating what will become the world’s longest and deepest subsea road tunnel. It will be a twin-tube 27 kilometers long tunnel that crosses two fjords and at its deepest will be 392 meters below sea level. Being a spectacular construction in itself, the Rogfast link is just one part of a bigger scheme, The Coastal Highway Route E39 Project.
The project will re-shape the Norwegian West Coast and is the biggest infrastructure project in the country’s history.
“It is an enormous national investment plan and it’s very exciting to be part of it,” says Frank Grønvold, Project Manager for the tunnel project at the contractor NCC, one of the leading construction businesses in the Nordic countries.
The Coastal Highway Route E39 runs between Kristiansand in the south and Trondheim in the north. The road passes through six counties and through the cities of Stavanger, Bergen, Ålesund and Molde. About a third of Norway’s 5.3 million people live along the West Coast. Route E39 is an important artery for Norwegian businesses, as some 60 percent of the country’s export goods are produced on the West Coast. When E39 leaves Norway it proceeds to Denmark, making it an important entry point to the European continent. The route is beautiful, winding through the spectacular coastal landscape. But the stunning fjords have also made the route a painfully time-consuming ride, with seven ferry crossings. All in all, the route takes 21 hours to drive.
Today, that is about to change. Apart from replacing ferries with tunnels and bridges, several sections of the road across the country will be upgraded. The improvements will cut the current travel time in half and the route, which measures 1100 kilometers, will be 50 kilometers shorter. A preliminary price tag is set at approximately 340 billion Norwegian kroner (the equivalent of 39 billion US dollars), according to Norwegian Public Roads Administration.
For Håvard Langåker, truckdriver at Vassbakk & Stol, the E39 is his workplace. He looks forward to the transformation.
“I spend quite some time queuing for the ferries. A lot of time can be saved in the future when I will be able to just drive under the fjords” he says.
His standard route is between Bergen and Stavanger and today he drives a load of excavated rock from the Rogfast tunnel construction at Boknafjorden.
Apart from tunnels and bridges, other spectacular constructions are in the pipeline for the improved the E39. The Norwegian Public Roads Administration is considering a completely new construction: the world’s first submerged floating tube bridge (SFTB).
“The SFTB could be applicable for some of the deepest and longest fjords where suspension bridges or floating bridges would be difficult to build,” explains Kjersti Kvalheim Dunham, Project Manager at the Norwegian Public Roads Administration.
However, at the moment the engineering and testing of the SFTB is under development.
“With construction well underway, we expect that 10 percent of the Coastal Highway Route E39 project will be completed this year. More than one third of the project will be completed by 2030, and the finances for our current projects are already in the National Transportation Plan,” concludes Kvalheim Dunham.
Håvard Langåker is on the road again and Arne Oddvar Haugeland and his team continue drilling in Boknafjorden. For Haugeland, the Rogfast tunnel will be his last project.
“Tunnel work is basically the same as when I started, even if the machines and the explosives have improved greatly. What I will truly miss is the camaraderie within the team,” he says.