The West Qinling tunnels are part of the Chinese Government’s Lanzhou to Chongqing Railway, a massive 820 km (500 mi) long scheme that links the capital of Gansu Province (Lanzhou) with southwestern Chongqing, a mega-city of over 35 million people. The parallel rail tunnels are for freight, and link the city of Longnan with the towns of Waina, Luotang and Fengxiang within Gansu Province. The new railway, at a cost of USD $11.3 billion, shortens transport times from 17.5 hours to 6.5 hours and enables an annual freight capacity of 100 million metric tons (110 million US tons). Trains run on the double track lines at 160 km per hour (100 mph), with a 50-train daily maximum.
In January 2009, China Railways signed a contract with Robbins for the supply of twin 10.2 m (33.5 ft) diameter Main Beam machines. The TBMs would be used to excavate two 16.6 km (10.3 mi) tunnels through the Qinling Mountains.
Geology in the two tunnels consisted of 30 to 80 MPa (4,300 to 11,600 psi) UCS sandstone and phyllite rock beneath more than 1,400 m (4,600 ft) of cover. The corresponding ground support program consisted of continuous mesh and rock bolts, with either ring beams or steel straps, for the length of the tunnel. Rather than roof shield fingers, protected mesh windows were used to install ground support immediately behind the cutterhead. In the event that extremely poor ground was encountered, the mesh pockets could be easily modified to use the McNally Support System, patented by C&M McNally Engineering of Toronto, Ontario, Canada for exclusive use with Robbins TBMs. The McNally System utilizes steel or wood slats to provide continuous support along the roof area of the tunnel, protecting workers from falling rock.
The two machines, for contractor China Railways 18th Bureau (Group) Co., were assembled at a local workshop and transported to the jobsites, where they were assembled on bridges spanning a deep valley. The first machine, for the Left Line, was launched at the end of June 2010 after being walked through a 2.0 km (1.2 mi) long adit tunnel. The second machine, for the Right Line, was launched on July 17, 2010. The TBM tunnels were just 40 m (130 ft) apart and located approximately 1,000 m (3,280 ft) above sea level, about halfway up Qinling Mountain.
The two Robbins TBMs advanced at world record rates in exceedingly difficult conditions. The first Main Beam Machine advanced 235 m (771 ft) in one week and 841.8 m (2,761 ft) in one month during Spring 2011 – rates much higher than any ever recorded for TBMs in the 10 to 11 m diameter range. The fast advancing Left Line machine also broke through into an intermediate adit tunnel on May 28, 2011 at the 5.5 km (3.4 mi) mark, where it underwent planned maintenance and inspection. Within several weeks the machine was launched again to bore the rest of its tunnel.
Despite the conditions of phyllite and limestone with high quartz content, only about 100 cutters were changed on the Left Line TBM. The Right Line machine, launched a month later and about 1,000 m (3,280 ft) behind, also experienced good cutter wear. By 2013, both machines had made their final breakthroughs in their respected tunnels.