Black hole

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 June, 2006, 12:00am

Mobile phones will still work in the middle of East Asia's longest road tunnel. So, in an emergency, stranded motorists will be able to discover the latest about their situation via friends monitoring TV news flashes.

Fears about the Hsuehshan Tunnel, linking Taipei and Ilan and due to open next week, are only natural. It is 12.9km long, and 11 workers were killed during the 15 years of its construction. At peak capacity, 5,000 vehicles can be in the tunnel at any one time, enough to fuel anyone's fears. And accusations and counter-accusations continue over a final emergency drill, conducted on Tuesday, in which experts were not allowed to randomly test fire hydrants.

Then there are earthquakes. Experts have assured the public that the route does not lie near any active fault lines, and that during quakes - a certainty in Taiwan - the tunnel will merely move from side to side together with the mountain it runs beneath.

The new construction does appear safe. It has separate tunnels for north- and south-bound traffic, plus a third emergency tunnel. France's road under Mont Blanc, which experienced a disastrous fire resulting in 39 deaths in 1999, consisted of only one tunnel. Taiwan's system has side branches for vehicles every 1.5km and pedestrian access points every 350 metres. Thirteen aboriginal-style murals will help combat boredom during the 10-minute transit.

The new route will, incredibly, cut the driving time from Taipei to Ilan, a small city on the east coast, from 2? hours to just 30 minutes. Ilan's citizens are reportedly overjoyed at the prospect of increased economic activity: a science park for biology-based industries has already been promised. In addition, property prices are certain to rise. The city's annual 200 days of rain, caused by the confluence of warm and cold sea currents nearby, will not dissuade many Taipei workers from relocating to this unspoiled area.

The last time I was there, Ilan was indeed quiet, with only a couple of smart coffee shops located in a tiny city centre. It is rural, too: you can drive from it straight into the island's highest mountains, reaching an altitude of 3,000 metres in under two hours. Moreover, the new tunnel will improve access to the whole east coast, putting Hualien, the regional capital to which visitors often currently fly - and even Taitung in the far southeast - within relatively easy reach of Taipei by road.

Even so, there are academics who continue to express reservations about the NT$60 billion ($14.5 billion) tunnel's readiness. But it would simply be par for the course if, with assurances that absolute safety is the top priority, next Friday's long-delayed opening was, in the event, postponed yet again.