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Japan tunnel disaster sounds global investment warning

Hiroshi Hiyama
Rescue vehicles line up outside the Sasago tunnel some 80 km west of Tokyo. The deadly tunnel collapse in Japan should serve as a wake-up call to developed nations whose ageing infrastructure is in dire need of updating, experts say.

A deadly tunnel collapse in Japan should serve as a wake-up call to developed nations whose ageing infrastructure is in dire need of updating, experts say.

Trillions of dollars need to be spent across the globe just to stand still they warn, adding current fiscal belt tightening is pushing vital repairs dangerously far down the list.

"Maintenance work is often neglected because you cannot easily see the urgent need for it," said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute.

Nine people were killed when concrete ceiling panels crashed onto three vehicles, setting at least one ablaze inside the Sasago tunnel, 80 kilometres (50 miles) west of Tokyo on December 2.

The exact cause of the cave-in is not yet known, but an initial probe has pointed to decay in the fixtures that held the more than one-tonne panels to the roof of the 35-year-old tunnel.

The government ordered immediate inspections of all structures with the same design and Japanese police began a criminal investigation, with an eye to bringing negligence charges.

The incident sent jitters through Japan, one of the most engineered countries in the world, which saw a huge infrastructure boom in the decades after World War II.

At least eight percent of the 155,000 major bridges in Japan are already older than 50 years, the infrastructure ministry said. By 2030, more than half of them will be.

The ministry estimates it needs to spend 190 trillion yen ($2.3 trillion) over the next five decades just to maintain the infrastructure it already has.

But with debts more than double its GDP, which Japan's shrinking workforce cannot easily repay, finding new cash is a tough ask.

The tunnel collapse was not the first time a lack of investment has caused problems.

In the US city of Minneapolis, an eight-lane, 33-metre (108-foot)-high bridge collapsed in 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145.

Dilapidated power lines were among the major causes of Australia's 2009 Black Saturday wildfires that killed 173 people.

In 2006, a huge summertime blackout in New York was blamed on a badly maintained grid.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $2.2 trillion is needed over the next decade simply to prevent resources such as bridges, roads, waterways and power cables from deteriorating.

But under current plans, the US government will spend less than half that amount and, with Washington lawmakers seeking to avoid the looming "fiscal cliff," the federal investment budget could be cut further.

Engineers Australia, an infrastructure lobby group, estimates that years of neglect have left the vast and sparsely populated country with a Aus$700 billion ($732 billion) investment shortfall.

Rod Eddington, chairman of Infrastructure Australia, has warned that even though upgrades are expensive, the status quo is not an option.

"The results of not doing enough are traffic congestion, poor access to our export gateways, missed economic opportunities and lower quality of life," Eddington said in a report in June.

London's transport plans for this year's Olympic Games were thrown into disarray when one of the main arteries linking Heathrow Airport and the capital had to be closed in December 2011 for emergency repairs.

Cables holding together the concrete Hammersmith Flyover, built in the 1960s, had been weakened by a steady seepage of salt water, a problem that needed five months of traffic-disrupting work to fix.

Civil structural engineer Aleksandar Pavic said with only periodic inspections, Britain gets taken by surprise when its infrastructure -- some of which dates to the 19th century -- suddenly fails.

"We don't know what our structures are doing," said Pavic, professor of vibration engineering at the University of Sheffield.

"We don't understand what is actually happening on them, that's why things are falling apart, quite unexpectedly," he said, adding modern monitoring systems could give a much better picture.

Dai-ichi Life economist Nagahama said strong political will is necessary if sufficient money is ever going to be put aside for much needed updates and maintenance.

"The recent tunnel accident may be the trigger that improves public awareness about the issue and presses authorities" to do something, he said.