Little Bits of History

March 13

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 13, 2017

1988: The Seikan Tunnel opens. The Tsugaru Strait lies between the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido in Japan. Linking the two islands was considered during the Taisho period (1912-1925) but was not undertaken. Surveying began in earnest in 1946 after World War II ended and Japan lost territory overseas and had returning soldiers looking for work. In 1954, a typhoon sunk five ferries traveling in the Strait and killed 1,430 passengers. The next year, the Japanese National Railroad (JNR) increased pressure to build a tunnel connecting the two islands. Between 1955 and 1965, the ferries operated by JNR saw passenger rates double to over 4 million passengers a year and cargo levels rose to over 6 million tons. It was predicted that by 1971, the need for movement across the water would outstrip the docks’ ability to process passengers and cargo and there was no space to increase docks.

In September 1971, it was finally decided to build a tunnel. Construction on the 33.46 mile tunnel had 14.5 miles under the seabed. The track lies 330 feet beneath the sea and 790 feet below sea level. The now-dual gauge railway tunnel connects Aomori Prefecture on Honshu with the more northern island of Hokkaido. Both the standard gauge Hokkaido Shinakansen and the narrow gauge Kaikyo Line are able to traverse the tunnel. Construction efforts needed to overcome severe geological conditions and there were 34 workers killed during construction.

The estimated usage of the tunnel was exaggerated. The slowdown in the Japanese and world economies were at least in part to blame. Instead of traffic peaking in 1985, traffic peaked in 1978, ten years before the tunnel was able to be fully operational. The cost of construction was ¥538.4 billion ($3.6 billion in US currency). After the tunnel was completed, all rail traffic used the tunnel rather than ferries. However, passenger usage was less due to the cost and the availability of quicker air travel. There were overnight and luxury trains introduced, but they were not popular, still costing too much and taking too much time, especially after local air travel was deregulated.

There are two stations within the tunnel. They are to be used as emergency escape points in the event of a fire or other disaster. This is needed due to the length of the tunnel, the longest underwater tunnel in the world, with the caveat that the Chunnel has more tunnel underwater but the tunnel itself is shorter. The two station had, at one time, museums about the history of the tunnel which could be visited by special tours. These are no longer inexistence. The two stations remain the first of their kind, the first rail stations built underwater.

To survive, you’ve got to keep wheedling your way. You can’t just sit there and fight against odds when it’s not going to work. You have to turn a corner, dig a hole, go through a tunnel – and find a way to keep moving. – Twyla Tharp

The light at the end of the tunnel is just the light of an oncoming train. – Robert Lowell

Struggling is hard because you never know what’s at the end of the tunnel. – Don Rickles

If you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, you are looking the wrong way. – Barry Commoner

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