News: The light at the end of the tunnel
Story by Alicia Embrey
BAGRAM, Afghanistan - The Salang Tunnel through the Hindukush Mountains was once hailed as an engineering marvel. It is a vital link connecting Afghanistan with Central Asia and Russia, but in the past 49 years the tunnel had deteriorated into a deathtrap. In 2012 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) took the ambitious task of short-term improvements in the tunnel. Just one year later, Transatlantic Afghanistan District (TAA) is ready to flip the switch on the final repairs.
Since earliest times, the barren, dry Hindukush Mountains, towering nearly 1,600 feet in places, have sliced Afghanistan in half and slowed commerce between southern and northern Afghanistan and central Asia.
In the 1950s, as a gesture of goodwill to the Afghan people, the Soviet Union built the Salang Corridor, a series of 19 galleries and the 1.6 mile Salang Tunnel, that provided travelers protection from the elements. The Salang Corridor transformed the economy by opening the trade route, cutting travel between the regions from 72 hours to 10 and shaving 190 miles off the trip.
Strategically located in the jagged highlands, the tunnel was originally built to handle a peak of a thousand cars a day. Now, four to five times that many pass through in a 24-hour period. Although other routes exist, the Salang Pass is the only safe route that stays open year-round, thanks to coalition troops who secure the stretch.
“Since its completion by the Soviets in 1964, the tunnel has survived wars, fires, avalanches and years of severe wear and tear inflicted by military vehicles and overloaded jingle trucks with spiked tire chains,” said James Fielding, a TAA construction control representative with more than 30 years of experience. The tunnel remains, as far as he knows, the second highest traffic tunnel in the world. “Set against the majestic Hindukush Mountains, it is, as my grandkids would say, ‘Awesome.’”
But for years maintenance was neglected in the Salang Tunnel, leaving it a narrow two-lane passage, pot-holed, unpaved and lacking a working lighting and ventilation system. The thick exhaust fumes and near-zero visibility made traveling through the tunnel treacherous.
The mountain roads and tunnel have a grim history of deadly accidents, including a 1982 explosion that killed almost 1,000 Soviet troops. According to records, most of the troops trapped in the tunnel died of asphyxiation. Since then, hundreds of travelers have died in accidents and avalanches.
In November 2012, USACE awarded a $12 million construction contract to Omran Holding Group to refurbish the aging tunnel. The construction firm is based in Bagram, Afghanistan.
Reopening and enhancing the capabilities of the economic artery was a vital mission for coalition forces. “Part of the coalition’s mission in Afghanistan is to allow the Afghans to not only defend their borders, but to provide a basis for an independent economy,” said Mark Jones, TAA’s Engineering and Construction Division chief. “We felt that reopening or enhancing the capabilities of the tunnel and corridor for traffic was an important initiative.”
The tunnel repairs, funded by the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, consists of the construction, improvement and reconstruction of new pavement and the drainage system within the Salang Tunnel, an electrical power plant for the lighting and ventilation systems, fuel storage, a camera monitoring system, and necessary site work for the Ministry of Public Works (MoPW) in the Parwan Province of the Salang Pass.
Refurbishing the tunnel posed several challenges for USACE and its contractor. “The most difficult challenges (in addition to synchronizing the multiple layers of politics with the actual construction), was getting the MoPW to stop the tunnel traffic, and getting the contractor to maintain a safe worksite,” Fielding said. “We had to stop the project due to the recurring violations, which included poor tunnel ventilation and lighting, and overcrowded living quarters for the construction workers.”
Safety is always a top priority for USACE, and that includes contractors working in this austere location. “Tunnel air quality, including oxygen and carbon monoxide levels, were closely monitored during all work activities,” Fielding said. “The carbon monoxide would dissipate once the traffic was reduced. The tunnel traffic was supposed to be stopped, but there was always some traffic. If air quality was unsafe, the contractor is required to stop work and evacuate all workers until safe levels are confirmed.”
The project required a large workforce and the contractor exceeded the maximum number of workers allowed in the sleeping quarters. “When they were shut down for this and other safety violations, the contractor located additional quarters south of the tunnel in a large building, which they rented and renovated to house the excess workers,” Fielding said.
With this in mind, the TAA repair strategy was to adapt and overcome. “We reduced non-critical features and added features that would provide a better product while maintaining the schedule and budget,” Fielding said. “We also worked with, through and around traffic issues, which could have delayed this project.”
“You might think that a job of this magnitude would take a large international company,” Jones said. “But I’m really proud to say that through our acquisition plan and strategy, the Omran Group, a small Afghan company with Afghan engineers and Afghan workers, won the bid. It was a tremendous achievement for this company that first started getting contracts with USACE almost seven years ago for very small projects. Omran has grown in capability and size, which helped them bid successfully for the mission.”
Despite the challenges, Fielding is confident that the repair work will be completed by the end of 2013. The Salang Tunnel project is part of the Corps’s overall mission to help ensure the Afghanistan government has the basic infrastructure that it needs.