A tunnel is an underground passageway, dug through the surrounding soil/earth/rock and enclosed except for entrance and exit, commonly at each end. A pipeline is not a tunnel, though some recent tunnels have used immersed tube construction techniques rather than traditional tunnel boring methods.
A tunnel may be for foot or vehicular road traffic, for rail traffic, or for a canal. The central portions of a rapid transit network are usually in tunnel. Some tunnels are aqueducts to supply water for consumption or for hydroelectric stations or are sewers. Utility tunnels are used for routing steam, chilled water, electrical power or telecommunication cables, as well as connecting buildings for convenient passage of people and equipment.
Secret tunnels are built for military purposes, or by civilians for smuggling of weapons, contraband, or people. Special tunnels, such as wildlife crossings, are built to allow wildlife to cross human-made barriers safely.
A tunnel is relatively long and narrow; the length is often much greater than twice the diameter, although similar shorter excavations can be constructed, such as cross passages between tunnels.
The definition of what constitutes a tunnel can vary widely from source to source. For example, the definition of a road tunnel in the United Kingdom is defined as “a subsurface highway structure enclosed for a length of 150 metres (490 ft) or more.” In the United States, the NFPA definition of a tunnel is “An underground structure with a design length greater than 23 m (75 ft) and a diameter greater than 1,800 millimeter.
In the UK, a pedestrian, cycle or animal tunnel beneath a road or railway is called a subway, while an underground railway system is differently named in different cities, the “Underground” or the “Tube” in London, the “Subway” in Glasgow, and the “Metro” in Newcastle. The place where a road, railway, canal or watercourse passes under a footpath, cycle way, or another road or railway is most commonly called a bridge or, if passing under a canal, an aqueduct. Where it is important to stress that it is passing underneath, it may be called an underpass, though the official term when passing under a railway is an under bridge. A longer underpass containing a road, canal or railway is normally called a “tunnel”, whether or not it passes under another item of infrastructure. An underpass of any length under a river is also usually called a “tunnel”, whatever mode of transport it is for.
In the US, the term “subway” means an underground rapid transit system, and the term pedestrian underpass is used for a passage beneath a barrier. Rail station platforms may be connected by pedestrian tunnels or footbridges.