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Norway to open world's longest road tunnel

In this story:

Safety precautions

Underground innovations

Easier access

RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow

LAERDAL, Norway (Reuters) -- Norwegians are welcoming the scheduled opening of the world's longest road tunnel here as a safe short-cut under a snow-capped mountain range.

When King Harald opens the 24.5-kilometer (15.3-mile) Laerdal tunnel on November 27, it will eclipse the 16.9-kilometer (10.5-mile) St. Gotthard tunnel in Switzerland as the world's longest.

Locals got an early look Sunday at the tunnel, named after the village of Laerdal at the mouth of a salmon river. One couple even exchanged vows in it.

"Everyone felt positive about the tunnel. It was a special atmosphere. Romantic and not scary at all," said Ronny Rinde, 27, who married 24-year-old Vibeke Skjerping.

The bride and groom wed in a blue-lit, 30-meter-wide wide cavern (98.5 feet) in the middle of the tunnel -- one of three big halls designed to let trucks and cars turn if fire blocks one end. The caverns are meant to help dispel any claustrophobia.

Safety precautions

Designers have installed unprecedented safety systems. Anyone even moving a fire extinguisher will trigger an alarm that makes lights flash in the tunnel and triggers signs saying "Turn and drive out" away from the spot.

"We're worried about people speeding or falling asleep at the wheel, but the big problem is fire," project manager Jon Kvaale said. Fire can fill a tunnel will lethal smoke.

Thirty-nine people died in an inferno in the Mont Blanc tunnel linking France and Italy in March 1999 when a truck caught fire. In Austria last month, 155 people died in a train carrying skiers up a tunnel in the resort of Kaprun.

"Fire could happen here too. But unlike the Mont Blanc tunnel, there's much less traffic. And people can more easily turn to drive out," Kvaale said.

Traffic through the toll-free tunnel will be only 1,000 cars and trucks a day -- meaning typical gaps of hundreds of meters between vehicles. Security relies on extinguishers and telephones -- there is no video surveillance or smoke alarms.

The Laerdal tunnel, which cost $114 million, will create a ferry-free route avoiding high mountain passes between Oslo and Norway's second largest city, the western port of Bergen.

Norway can afford such tunnels thanks to oil wealth. The country is the world's top non-OPEC oil exporter and produces about 3.2 million barrels per day.

Underground innovations

Norwegians hope the tunnel will boost tourism to a region of spectacular fjords. You can already buy a diploma proclaiming: "I have traveled through the world's longest road tunnel." Tunnel T-shirts and mugs will follow.

In one innovation, blue lights illuminate the roofs of three caverns, 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) apart, with a flush of yellow light at the bottom to give an illusion of daylight at the end of the 33-foot-wide (10 meter) tunnel.

"We thought of projecting a picture of trees or a landscape or a green light onto the walls of the caverns," said Gunnar Lotsberg, who headed planning. "We think this lighting gives the idea of a sunrise and breaks up the tunnel."

Trucks and buses can turn in the caverns or reverse and turn at several other points.

The tunnel also has giant fans sucking fresh air in from both ends and blowing it out from a tunnel cut into a side valley -- the only available hole in a mountain range whose peaks are up to 4,593 feet (1,400 meters) above the tunnel.

Extra fans and unprecedented pollution filters, extracting both dust and nitrogen oxide, will help keep the tunnel clean.

The two exits are marked with an international green and white symbol of a person running for a door.

In the middle where the wedding took place, one escape arrow is marked 7.7 miles (12.3 kilometers) west, the other 7.6 miles (12.2 kilometers) east.

"That has to be a marathon runner," Lotsberg said. In Laerdal, officials will track a computer screen round the clock watching for alarms.

Easier access

Several people questioned in Laerdal said they thought it was probably safer to drive in the tunnel than along the region's twisting mountain roads. A giant rock slide damaged a birch forest in mid-November near the village. No one was hurt.

Trying to stop people from falling asleep, the tunnel gently curves and car tires buzz loudly on bumps when crossing the central line or the edge of the tunnel.

"Now we'll be able to take a day trip to Bergen," said Gry Merete Groendalen, a 21-year-old florist in Laerdal. Bergen is 124 miles (200 kilometers) away by road and the trip includes a three-hour ferry trip.

Rinde said his mother-in-law attended his tunnel wedding but had been among the few sceptics. "She's scared of two things -- dogs and tunnels. We've recently bought two Alsatians and now we've got married in a tunnel," he said.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Austria pays tribute to ski train victims
November 17, 2000
Last of 155 bodies recovered from ski-train
November 15, 2000
Mont Blanc fire extinguished; at least 35 dead
March 26, 1999

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