Drilling and blasting

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Before the advent of tunnel boring machines, drilling and blasting was the only economical way of excavating long tunnels through hard rock, where digging is not possible. Even today, the method is still used in the construction of tunnels, such as in the construction of the Lötschberg Base Tunnel. The decision whether to construct a tunnel using a TBM or using a drill and blast method includes a number of factors such as:

  • Tunnel length
  • Managing the risks of variations in ground quality
  • Required speed of construction
  • The required shape of the tunnel

Tunnel length is a key issue that needs to be addressed because large TBMs for a rock tunnel have a high capital cost, but because they are usually quicker than a drill and blast tunnel the price per metre of tunnel is lower.[1] This means that shorter tunnels tend to be less economical to construct with a TBM and are therefore usually constructed by drill and blast. Managing ground conditions can also have a significant effect on the choice with different methods suited to different hazards in the ground.


While drilling and blasting saw limited use in pre-industrial times using gunpowder (such as with the Blue Ridge Tunnel in the United States, built in the 1850s), it was not until more powerful (and safer) explosives, such as dynamite (patented 1867), as well as powered drills were developed, that its potential was fully realised.

Drilling and blasting was successfully used to construct tunnels throughout the world, notably the Fréjus Rail Tunnel, the St. Gotthard Tunnel, the Simplon Tunnel, the Jungfraubahn and even the longest road tunnel in the world, Lærdalstunnelen, are constructed using this method.


A drill jumbo during the construction of Citybanan under Stockholm, used for drilling holes for explosives

As the name suggests, drilling and blasting works as follows:

  • A number of holes are drilled into the rock, which are then filled with explosives.
  • Detonating the explosive causes the rock to collapse.
  • Rubble is removed and the new tunnel surface is reinforced.
  • Repeating these steps will eventually create a tunnel.

The positions and depths of the holes (and the amount of explosive each hole receives) are determined by a carefully constructed pattern, which, together with the correct timing of the individual explosions, will guarantee that the tunnel will have an approximately circular cross-section.

Rock support[edit]

As the tunnel is incrementally excavated the roof and sides of the tunnel need to be supported to stop the rock falling into the excavation. The philosophy and methods for rock support vary widely but typical rock support systems can include:

  • Rock bolts or rock dowels
  • Shotcrete
  • Ribs or mining arches and lagging
  • Cable bolts
  • In-situ concrete

Typically a rock support system would include a number of these support methods, each intended to undertake a specific role in the rock support such as the combination of rock bolting and shotcrete.


  1. ^ Kolymbas, Dimitrios (2005). Tunelling and tunnel mechanics: a rational approach to tunnelling. Springer-Verlag. p. 444. ISBN 3-540-25196-0.