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Guillermo Gaviria Echeverri Tunnel: Another way to build road tunnels in Colombia

The department of Antioquia is one of the most rugged in the world. Crossed by the Central and Western Andes mountain ranges, its breathtaking and dizzying landscapes demand that the ingenuity of its engineering be commensurate with the unfolding geography. Since 2018, numerous challenges have been faced in constructing the Guillermo Gaviria Echeverri Tunnel  (GGE) in the mountains of western Antioquia — a tunnel that will be the longest in the country and in all of the Americas.

The GGE, with a length of 9.73 kilometers and an emergency gallery of equal length, totals 19 kilometers of excavation. This critical project, part of the fourth-generation (4G) highway network being developed in Colombia for several years, comprises a total of 39.5 kilometers, 29 bridges, and 18 tunnels. Once completed, this megaproject will reduce the travel time from Medellín to western Urabá to 4.5 hours — a journey that currently takes between 8 to 9 hours — and will improve connectivity with the central region of the country, the Pacific Coast, and the Atlantic Coast.

 

Behind the drilling and ventilation of the GGE is Epiroc, a Swedish company and a global leader in the mining and construction industries. Epiroc's Boomer XE3C and Boomer E2C jumbos with ABC Total navigation systems have excavated approximately 1.4 million cubic meters of soil, facing varied rock quality (between Type 3 and Type 5 Special) and the inherent challenges of a project of this length, particularly ventilation.

 

Typically, for tunnel construction, a high-powered fan is placed at the entrance to propel clean air through a duct — known as the ventilation sleeve — that runs along the top of the structure and reaches the construction face. This air is crucial for the workers' breathing. However, due to the length of the project, the goal of lining the tunnel and advancing excavation simultaneously became a titanic task.

Germán Ángel, legal representative of the Antioquia al Mar Consortium

The lining involves covering the tunnel's curvature, utilizing several scaffolds for waterproofing, reinforcement steel installation, and concrete coating. This daily maneuver of the sleeve for these tasks became a problem, as explained by Germán Ángel, legal representative of the Antioquia al Mar Consortium: "Undoubtedly, it was going to lead to paralysis, very continuous and periodic suspensions of ventilation, constant repairs, because every day it had to be lowered, raised, lowered, raised."

 

This was significantly reducing air quality at that time, as recalled by the Governor of Antioquia, Aníbal Gaviria: "We visited the tunnel several times, and we had to wear masks because it was already an extremely complex length." This, in turn, jeopardized the workers' health, forcing them to suspend excavation work, impacting project efficiency. About 4 hours, or 20% of the cycle time, were lost: "If we compare that against the project schedule, we found that it would not be met," explains Juan Pablo López Cortés, Sectoral Secretary of Sustainable Territorial Development of Antioquia - Antioquia Governorate.

Aníbal Gaviria, Governor of Antioquia

This led to the formation of a working group between the Antioquia Al Mar Consortium and Epiroc to find a solution that would allow progress on the project while ensuring optimal air quality. Bjorn Tisell, General Manager of Epiroc CVCA at the time, and his team of experts presented a solution based on their expertise as mining suppliers. Although a common practice in underground mining, it had never been applied to the construction of road tunnels in Colombia.

 

As mentioned earlier, this project included the construction of a parallel tunnel that, upon 

completion, will serve as an emergency exit. Every 450 meters, it connects to the main tunnel through what is known as connection galleries. Epiroc proposed temporarily sealing these connections and turning the emergency gallery into a giant air duct. Thus, two high-pressure fans would propel air from the outside. This air would receive an additional boost with another fan inside, connected to the sleeve. The sleeve would then exit the main tunnel through an open connection gallery further ahead, allowing progress in both excavation and lining simultaneously.

Juan Pablo López Cortés, Sectoral Secretary of Sustainable Territorial Development of Antioquia - Antioquia Governorate

The results were immediate, as Juan Pablo López recounts: "With the lining, we went from a performance of about 8 to 10 meters per day, for both work fronts, to achieving up to 28 meters in the same period of time." William Gaona, project manager of the Antioquia al Mar consortium, reaffirms this: "If the system had not been implemented, we would probably be around half, because the interference of the ventilation sleeves with the processes of placing the waterproofing membrane, reinforcement steel, and concrete is quite significant."

 

The implementation of this ventilation system redesign has been crucial for meeting the work plan and optimizing costs, but above all, for the health of those working in the tunnel. Workers could enjoy optimal air quality from the most critical moment of the project until the breakthrough, which took place on October 6, 2023.

 

The ingenuity to address the challenges presented in this tunnel will go down in the history of the tunneling industry. "I believe that we will not only adjust this as a good practice in the Government of Antioquia but it will become a modus operandi in the construction of similar tunnels anywhere else in Colombia," emphasized the Governor of the department.

William Gaona, project manager of the Antioquia al Mar consortium

The Guillermo Gaviria Echeverri Tunnel is getting closer to connecting the interior of the country with the ports in Urabá, including Puerto Antioquia, Puerto Pisisi, and the International Darien Port (still under construction). This will stimulate trade, tourism, and make the possibilities of developing a maritime and port industry that accelerates the country's development a reality

 

This technology received continuous support from drilling tool specialists responsible for  monitoring the lifespan of steel, providing recommendations for good operational practices, offering sharpening services, and managing on-site storage, all focused on achieving the best overall drilling cost.

 

Technical specialists were responsible for on-site equipment maintenance, supporting the 

new ventilation project, supplying spare parts, and providing training for operators.

 

The Guillermo Gaviria Echeverri Tunnel will accelerate Colombia's transformation.

Epiroc technology used in the Guillermo Gaviria Echeverri Tunnel
• Boomer ABC Total Drill Rigs with Two and Three Arms
• Serpent Ventilation: AVH160 (315 KW) and AVH100 (110 kW)
• Continuous Material Loader: HAGGLOADER 7HR
• High-Quality Drilling Tools: Power Bit

Ventilation systems International 2024 Ventilation Drilling Customer story