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Long tunnels

by DoDo Sun Jun 12th, 2016 at 06:40:15 PM EST

A decade ago, I wrote a diary about long railway tunnels. The opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel is a good occasion for an update.

When I was a child, there were about a dozen tunnels longer than 10 km. By the 21st century, they became so numerous that a decade ago, I restricted myself to 20+ km tunnels. This time, even that would be too much, so I'll write about the 11 rail tunnels in service, in construction or in serious planning longer than 30 km (excluding subway tunnels). About the existing ones, too, because there have been interesting developments for all of them.

Inaugural train carrying dignitaries exits the northern portal of the Gotthard Base Tunnel on 1 June 2016. Photo by Keystone / Laurent Gilleron from Neue Luzerner Zeitung

Frontpaged - Frank Schnittger - a great exemplar of the train blogging genre!

The eleven tunnels in order of increasing length:

New Guanjiao Tunnel (32,645 m)

This tunnel, currently China's longest, is along the world-famous Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The relatively low-level, outside-Tibet part of this railway was opened in 1984. 40 years later in 2014, the new tunnel bypassed a section where the old line crossed a mountain range with lots of tight curves and 180-degree loops. It is a state-of-the-art two-tube double-track tunnel.

Map from Contractors World (with typo in the original...)

Koralm Tunnel (32,893 m)

This tunnel is on the new Koralm Railway, which plugs a gap in Austria's railway network between provincial capitals Graz and Klagenfurt. It it is also an element of the thorough upgrade of the connection between north-eastern Italy and Vienna. Although it will certainly bring significant improvements in both domestic and international traffic, the benefits are unlikely to match the costs: this is a political project (pushed through by the late Jörg Haider as governor of Carinthia).

Although the project didn't go ahead as quickly as was expected when I wrote my Tunnels diary a decade ago, now, after the launch of the last tunnel boring machine last October, construction is in full swing, with late 2022 as the completion date.

Gaoligongshan Tunnel (34,531 m)

China has long advocated rail connections to its neighbours in South-Eastern Asia, all of which were held up by politics. The project to connect Myanmar (former Burma), which in particular was seen by the Myanmar opposition as colonialist, only got so far that China is building a line to the border. The line is perpendicular to the many parallel mountain ranges which formed on the edge of the collision of the Indian subcontinent and Asia, requiring extreme tunnelling. Construction started in August 2014, the target date for completion is 2021.

Map of rail lines into South-East Asia advocated by China from Bangkok Post, with location of Gaoligongshan Tunnel added

Lötschberg Base Tunnel (34,576.6 m)

This tunnel is the new centrepiece of Switzerland's secondary trans-Alpine route: the Lötschberg-Simplon line. It was opened in 2007 (see my contemporary diary) in a curious state: for cost-saving reasons, the southern third was double-track, the northern third single-track, and on the middle third, the second tube was bored but no track was laid.

Sketch map from the now defunct LBT official site

By now, the single-track section became a bottleneck (who would have thought?...). At last, planning for the completion of double-track started this year, the go-ahead for construction is expected in 2018.

Yulhyeon Tunnel (50,300 m)

South Korea's successful KTX high-speed network (which I portrayed six years ago) enters Seoul from the south-west, with a terminus in the city's northern half. There are a lot of new housing developments in the southern part of the metropolitan area, however, and the now world-famous upper-class Gangnam district is also in the south-east, so South Korea is building a new branch there: the Suseo High Speed Railway. To save any fuss with locals over noise, almost the entire line is a single tunnel.

With neither hundreds of metres of rock nor dozens of metres of water overhead, geology was a lot less challenging than for the other tunnels in this diary. Construction took just five years. The line is due to open later this year, after the repair of cracks found at one of the stations. Train services will be operated by a new subsidiary of the state railway, creating intra-company semi-competition.

Map from Korea.net

Channel Tunnel (50,450 m)

The Chunnel connects France and the UK since 1994. It is the best-known of the lot, I don't think I have to introduce it to my readers. Over the years I have written in particular about its fire safety.

In the past few years, the Chunnel has been a flashpoint in the immigration "debate": namely, refugees trying to get into the UK by hopping on trains often resulted in traffic closures and material damage. Should Britain now vote for Brexit in the referendum, the situation may get even more messy if France ends its efforts to hold back this stream of migration.

Another recent Chunnel-related news is that the operator of high-speed trains across it, Eurostar, put the first of its new 400 m long e320 trains into operation last November. While Frankfurt–London services are off the table for now, Amsterdam–London is in preparation for next year.

A Eurostar e320 crosses from Belgium into the Netherlands on a test run. Photo by Alex van Herwijnen from Flickr reproduced under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (modification: cropping, re-insertion of name)

Seikan Tunnel (53,850 m)

This tunnel connects Japan's main island Honshu with the northern island Hokkaido. It was first conceived after WWII as a weather-proof alternative to ferries (and also safe against floating mines from the Korean War). Two and a half times as long as the longest tunnel at the time, the government only had confidence to launch serious construction in 1971, and even then, it was a bit too much for contemporary technology: there were multiple flooding incidents. Also, the single-tube double-track structure wouldn't meet modern safety standards (now separate single-track tubes for the opposed directions are standard). By the time it was opened in 1988 – almost a decade late –, planes gained overwhelming dominance in passenger traffic, so the tunnel could only gain significance in freight traffic.

The tunnel was planned from the onset to accommodate Shinkansen high-speed trains, which run on standard-gauge tracks and are wider than normal trains in Japan (which are narrow-gauge). However, with the end of Japan's real-estate bubble and the on-set of Western-style budget cutbacks, the expansion of the Shinkansen line to the north was even slower than the completion of the tunnel: the Hokkaido Shinkansen was inaugurated on 26 March 2016 only, running across the Seikan tunnel on dual-gauge tracks at 140 km/h.

An H5 Series Shinkansen exits the Seikan Tunnel. It's well visible in the snow that both tracks are dual-gauge, with three rails. Photo from Figure Miyage

Brenner Base Tunnel (55,600 km)

This trans-Alpine tunnel is to connect Austria and Italy. Due to its connection to the existing Inn Valley Tunnel, which enables freight trains a 64 km travel between tunnel portals, it is marketed as the soon-to-be longest underground railway connection in the world.

Like the Mont d'Ambin Base Tunnel (further down), the BBT project languished in the alibi planning/preparatory works phase for years, but it has slowly entered the proper construction phase and is now slated for opening in 2025. The first sections of the actual main tunnel were bored from 2011 (at the geologically most difficult section, which was crossed without problems by 2015). Unlike the other trans-Alpine tunnels, but similar to the Channel Tunnel, this tunnel will have an exploratory tunnel along its entire length, to reduce geological risks; and to serve later as service tunnel for the two single-track main bores, increasing safety.

Above: 3D drawing (not to scale!) of the Brenner Base Tunnel as seen from the south-west, with the exploratory/service tunnel in yellow; also showing the access tunnels (green), emergency stops (blue), connecting tunnels (purple), as well as the Inn Valley Tunnel on top (light grey), from BBT-SE

Below: May 2016 construction progress diagram from BBT-SE

Gotthard Base Tunnel (57,051 m)

The new longest tunnel in the world is the biggest element of Switzerland's plan to move trans-Alpine freight from roads to rails (see my diary a decade ago). However, that intent has been undermined recently when referendum voters approved a plan to double the Gotthard Road Tunnel. Meanwhile, the plan to extend the GBT to the north (to a length of 75 km) in a second phase, a measure which was chiefly meant to reduce freight train noise in the narrow valleys there, is currently shelved.

Moreover, even though the GBT opened complete (unlike the LBT), its benefits won't be fully realised until 2020, when the shorter Ceneri Base Tunnel opens, tunnels and overbridges along the approaches will be modified for trucks with 4 m corner height, and new semi-high-speed trains will be delivered. The GBT is now also expected to be busier than in the original plans, so the great speed difference between freight and passenger trains is a capacity problem. One solution, coupling pairs of freight trains to form one long train, has now been tested.

Mont d'Ambin Base Tunnel (57.3 km)

This tunnel is very similar to the GBT: a mountain tunnel that is the centrepiece of a semi-high-speed mixed-traffic trans-Alpine line, but in this case between France and Italy (the Lyon–Turin line). The bi-tube tunnel will be constructed from both ends and four access shafts. Uniquely among the 50+ km tunnels, it will have not just emergency stops, but passing loops in the middle (mitigating the capacity limitation due to large speed differences which I noted for the GBT).

3D sketch drawing of the Mount d'Ambin Base Tunnel from LTF-SAS

Construction started once already in 2001, but tendering was soon aborted after a government change in France. The project wasn't killed outright, instead, it was kept alive with alibi activities: geological exploration and preparatory works (boring of access tunnels) was carried out, plans were revised. Meanwhile in Italy, plans of the connecting line to Turin (although mostly tunnel and 200 km/h max) faced significant protests from locals and anti-high-speed-rail campaigners from across Italy – with Beppe Grillo's support – which I viewed as over-the-top NIMBYism (see earlier discussion). One result was a plan change of the base tunnel itself, extending its length by 4 km at the Italian end. Also, preparatory works on the Italian side started in 2012 only (again see ET discussion).

More recently, work started on long exploratory tunnels along the path of the future main tunnel in both Italy and France, in fact the latter will become part of the main tunnel. All in all, paradoxically, what I called "alibi works" created a situation where everything is set for main works to start on short notice and with much better knowledge of the geology than a decade ago. Meanwhile, the governments started to re-commit themselves. The current schedule foresees final parliamentary approval by the end of this year, start of main construction next year, and completion around 2025. I think 2030 is more realistic. That is unless a Five Star Movement government decides to cancel the project.

Bohai Strait Tunnel (123 km)

East of Beijing, two peninsulas from the north and south narrow in the westernmost part of the Yellow Sea. It wasn't a decade ago that a train ferry across the strait was established, but now detailed plans of a world-record tunnel have been drawn up. From an engineering viewpoint, the tunnel is certainly feasible (the straits are very shallow), but I wonder about the economics. It's indisputable that passenger traffic would not justify the at least 200 billion yuan price tag (about the same as the entire Beijing–Shanghai high-speed railway). For freight traffic, however, studies found that bypassing the Beijing area would be a significant advantage for traffic between north-eastern and central and eastern China.

The reason I view this project as the most likely super-long tunnel to be built soon is that it has political support. It was considered for the current Five Year Plan, and although I can't find any reports that it was actually adopted, it may well be in four years, since even the PM backed it. Completion would take eight years.

In contrast, I don't think plans like the c. 40 km Strait of Gibraltar and Pyrenees Central Base Tunnels, the c. 60 km Helsinki to Tallinn and Sakhalin-Hokkaido Tunnels, the 73 km Jeju Undersea Tunnel in Korea, the 90 km Bering Strait Tunnel, the 100 km Irish Sea Tunnel, the 150 km Taiwan Strait Tunnel, the 200 km Japan-Korea Undersea Tunnel, or the 375 km China-Korea Undersea Tunnel have a chance at becoming reality any time soon. Of the above, the tunnel to South Korea's favourite holiday destination, Jeju Island, would be closest to economic viability (Seoul–Jeju is the world's busiest air route), but politics is not too favourable (a second airport on the island has priority).

:: :: :: :: ::

Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.

Train blogging is back!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun Jun 12th, 2016 at 06:52:53 PM EST

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Jun 13th, 2016 at 09:24:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Always love your train blogging DoDo. Your political analysis is also insightful.


Paul Gipe

by pgipe (pgipe(at)igc.org) on Mon Jun 13th, 2016 at 09:28:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Herrmann backs Brenner Base Tunnel link - Railway Gazette

To date around 22% of the 230 km of tunnel bores has been completed. Finance for the base tunnel is also secure, with Austria and Italy each contributing 30% of the cost and the European Union the remaining 40%. The rate of progress is now focusing attention on southern Germany and Italy under pressure, as failure to improve the approach routes would jeopardise the success of the project.

Herrmann's commitment will be tested over the coming months as the planned addition of two tracks from München to Kufstein on the Austrian border, either parallel to the existing main line or on a nearby alignment, has already stirred up fierce opposition. Planners hope to reach a consensus on a viable and acceptable route within three years, although planning and construction are expected to take at least another 20 years.

Germany's inability to do major infrastructure projects properly strikes again.

On that subject, on the occasion of the opening of the  Gotthard Base Tunnel, Süddeutsche posted an article titled (translated) What Germans can learn from the Swiss. The long article is more blank amazement at how different things go in Switzerland than in-depth analysis, but it does mention three significant factors: wide consultation at the planning phase, willingness to give something (mitigation measures, parallel projects) to those who don't benefit from the project, and separate funds for project finance instead of dependence on annual central budgets.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu Jun 16th, 2016 at 03:22:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What's the story with the postponement of the London-Frankfurt/Cologne service? I thought that was more or less a done deal

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Jun 13th, 2016 at 09:25:48 AM EST
There were multiple foreseeable issues which German Rail (DB) failed to foresee and which together made it uneconomic:
  • The service would have crossed the Schengen border, requiring DB to arrange for border controls and customs at significant cost (including infrastructure at stations).
  • The trains earmarked for the service (Siemens Velaro D) should have been equipped with extra safety equipment at significant cost (also in extra weight).
  • Commissioning of the Velaros for Belgium and France (for existing services currently operated with older ICE3 trains) was problematic enough, also at significant cost.
  • DB doesn't have all that many high-speed trains and realised it needs more for domestic service.

As for the new Eurostar trains, they aren't suited for the electrification system in Germany.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Jun 13th, 2016 at 11:34:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Meanwhile, in Sweden, we just last year could celebrate the inauguration of the tunnel below Hallandsås.

Reaching just 8.7 kilometers, it was finished 23 years after the construction started, and 18 years after the initial finishing date. The cost was eleven times the initial budget and the construction was plagued by environmental problems, leading to prsecution of executives and civil servants. Three executives were found guilty of environmental crimes and fined. Also corporate fines were issued.

But at least we have a tunnel now.

by fjallstrom on Mon Jun 13th, 2016 at 03:27:17 PM EST
Yeah, a top contender for the tunnelling Hall of Shame. Meanwhile, Stockholm's Citybanan tunnel was built without significant environmental damage, cost increases or major delays, but was plagued by serious work accidents.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Jun 13th, 2016 at 04:13:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Up there with the cancelling of the urgently needed second rail tunnel under the Hudson, that was cancelled by Christie, presumably to increase his Republican credentials for the Presidency. Such a waste; all he got out of it was a job picking up McDonald's orders for Trump.
by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Mon Jun 13th, 2016 at 04:44:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What about Seattle?
Most charming is the financial setup [...] The 2009 tunnel law passed by the City Council specifically says Seattle taxpayers will only pay the $937 million that they have already offered up. But [new] state law says Seattle taxpayers are on the hook for overruns [...] the project gets underway in 2011, scheduled to be done in late 2015.

In July 2013, they bring in Bertha, the largest tunnel-boring machine in the world, built specifically for the project by the Hitachi Zosen Corporation.

[...]  a thousand feet in -- one-tenth of the way through its journey -- it grinds to a halt.

No one knows why. For months. It eventually emerges that the machine itself is broken and no one is quite sure how to fix it, or how long it will take. What broke it? Turns out Bertha ran into a large steel pipe that was left there by a WSDOT [contractor] in

Funny story: Bertha has no reverse gear. There's no way to back it out [...] as water is pumped out, the surrounding land has started settling, unevenly, cracking streets and threatening nearby buildings and the viaduct itself.

Bertha was pretty broken. It is drilling again from last November, now delicately under the viaduct highway it is replacing.
by das monde on Tue Jun 14th, 2016 at 12:21:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There has never been a serious proposal to tunnel the Irish sea, and now the prospect of Brexit makes that even more unlikely!

The Dublin Holyhead route (100km) is the one that makes the most sense, but even that would require major rail infrastructure upgrades on both the Welsh and Irish sides - gauge standardisation, electrification, and capacity increases.

In addition, the Irish transport infrastructure is very road and air based, with a very underdeveloped rail sector.

The sea is relatively shallow, so I don't know if there would be major geological risk factors or cost factors that might come into play.

The government is now very capital investment averse and the public/private partnerships used to build some motorways have gone out of fashion - so private capital is unlikely to be forthcoming.

All in all, probably 0% chance of this progressing much over the next 10 years - unless oil prices go up so much as to make other modes of transport much more expensive.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Jun 13th, 2016 at 03:34:45 PM EST
That would be a perfect stop on the London to NY Hyperloop.
by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Jun 13th, 2016 at 09:02:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It would make sense as a destination for HS2.

I wonder if the old Tethys sea salt beds extend to Ireland. That'd be a relatively benign stratum to tunnel through. Although, you'd have to design the tunnel walls to resist salt degradation.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Jun 14th, 2016 at 02:54:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not an engineer, but from the geologist perspective I'd not be keen to tunnel through salt strata - salt deposits deform quickly...
by Bjinse on Tue Jun 14th, 2016 at 06:45:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I found the following article on Irish Sea seabed geology:

Geology of the seabed and shallow subsurface: the Irish Sea - NERC Open Research Archive

...Seabed sediments are subdivided into regions of soft mud- (clay and silt) rich sediment in the eastern and western Irish Sea and a central gravel belt comprising coarse sand and gravel. Small areas of bedrock outcrop at seabed are also recognised.

...Very stiff diamicts (glacial `boulder clays' or tills) are present across most of the report area of variable thickness.

...The predominant bedrock lithologies in the report area are Triassic and Carboniferous sandstone and mudstone. Geotechnical properties of Triassic rocks are comparable and potentially predictable. Carboniferous rock show high lateral and vertical variability. There are a number of igneous intrusions in the report area and rock properties near to the location of these igneous bodies may differ due to alteration of the host rock during intrusion.

What does this mean for a tunnel? For example, are any of these water-impermeable?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Jun 14th, 2016 at 02:02:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As a rule of thumb, most metamorphic and igneous rocks  as well as densely packed mud- and sandstones are poorly permeable - for as long they aren't fractured.

I didn't know before, but I see that the Chunnel was drilled largely through chalks from the Cretaceous, and the heavily fractured chalks on the French side caused a challenge to contain the influx of high pressurized water. That certainly does not sound ideal, though I guess the technology then was already available to sort that out.

As for the geology of the bedrock in the Irish sea, it indeed looks like it's older - mostly Triassic, Permian and Carboniferous sand- and mudstones, with some younger igneous intrusions. I'll repeat that I'm not an engineer, but from a first perspective, that sounds nearly ideal compared to drilling through chalks. Chances are high that the rocks will only be lowly permeable.

Furthermore, if you follow the link and look at Figure 2, it looks like the lithologies are continuous underneath the sea. That also sounds a lot more ideal to me than tunneling through a heavily fractured and compacted mess, like the Gotthard Base, which sounds like it was practically packed with geologic challenges.

So at the back of an envelope, chances and cost risks actually look pretty decent for a tunnel underneath the Irish sea.

by Bjinse on Wed Jun 15th, 2016 at 06:22:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for the overview!

Regarding the Chunnel, IIRC the problem was that from prior research, the chalk was expected to be continuous and non-fractured on the French side and fractured at the English end, but in practice, the opposite was found to be true.

Regarding the GBT, this was exciting to follow when they built it. From the engineering viepoint, the two biggest challenges expected in advance both proved easier to master:

  • A water-bearing, weak (crushed rock), but very deep ( > high pressure) zone in the south. Before the rest of the tunnel, a test drill was advanced into this area. Amazingly, just a hundred or two metres above the base tunnel's level, the zone became transformed rock which was water-impermeable and easier to drill.
  • In the north, there was a zone of compressive rock ( the tunnel closes up), also very deep in the mountain. At the time the GBT was planned, there was no tried method for dealing with compressive rock with such high pressures, so the solution (steel segments which lock as the rock around them contracts) was a bit of a gamble (some experts thought it won't work). It worked without a hitch.

Instead of these expected challenging zones, the most problematic zone was unexpected asbestos-bearing and/or longitudinally sheared rocks right at the site of the most complex structure, the southern emergency station; as well as right behind the launch cavern of the tunnel boring machines near the southern portal. This caused more than a year of delay.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Jun 15th, 2016 at 08:19:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
sounds good, all we need is a compelling reason to do it.

I'd wager it'd be far better value for money than a trident replacement

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Wed Jun 15th, 2016 at 02:24:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think there are two related factors which could make this feasible:

  1. If Brexit doesn't happen and the EU takes a strategic view that anything like a UK Ireland tunnel which will increase economic integration would be a good thing.

  2. If low cost finance is made available via the EIB or whatever.  A project like this is probably only feasible if the interest rate on finance is close to the rate of inflation - i.e. near zero real interest costs.

Presumably there are long term energy and climate change savings associated with a tunnel compared to air and sea transport which could be used to justify the preferential interest rate regime.

My only other concern would be the risk of bottlenecks in the London area if you are trying to route passengers and freight from Ireland to continental Europe.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Jun 15th, 2016 at 07:06:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Brenner tunnel has different slopes on the Austrian and Italian sides. I gather that the reason was Italian fear of damage to the water table if the peak was anywhere other than at the border, but I've no idea if the danger was a real one.

You can get a guided tour of the work in progress. I hope to take it someday Meanwhile, here is a picture of an access tunnel taken from the train

by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Mon Jun 13th, 2016 at 03:58:53 PM EST
The Brenner tunnel has different slopes on the Austrian and Italian sides.

I don't know myself if it has anything to do with the water table, but AFAIK? different slopes on the two sides is pretty standard. Both the old Gotthard Tunnel and the GBT have different slopes from the north and south.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Jun 13th, 2016 at 04:04:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The opening ceremony glaringly tried to fit a satanistic ritual, apparently an increasingly frequent narrative in big spectacles.

by das monde on Tue Jun 14th, 2016 at 12:43:30 AM EST
From your second link:

The Opening Ceremony of the World's Largest Tunnel Was a Bizarre Occult Ritual - The Vigilant Citizen - Symbols Rule the World

As I discussed in my article on the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics, the occult elite enjoys putting on full display its agenda and philosophy symbolic, dramatic displays which are reminiscent of dramas re-enacted in secret society rituals. Furthermore, there is no better way to showcase sheer power than putting the "Illuminati stamp of approval" on massive mega-projects such as the Olympics or major constructions.


Different madman, different paranoia: a leader of the right-populist SVP identified one element of the performance as Muslim dervishes and expressed outrage. The federal government wrote a three-line reply, stating that all the fantastic figures were modelled on local legends and the "dervishes" were dancing haystacks.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jun 15th, 2016 at 08:00:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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