Recently I found an interesting problem: A straight tunnel is being drilled through the earth (see picture; tunnel is drawn with two lines) and rails are installed in the tunnel. A train travels, only driven by gravitation and frictionless, along the rails. How long does it take the train to travel through this earth tunnel of length l?

The calculation, shows a surprising result. The travel time is independent of the length l; the time it takes the train to travel through a 1 Km tunnel is the same as through a 5000 Km tunnel, about 2500 seconds or 42 minutes! Why is that?

Imagine a model train on rails. If you put the rails on flat ground, the train won’t move. The gravitational force is pulling on the train, but not in the direction of travel. If you incline the rails slighty, the train starts to move slowly, if you incline the rails strongly, it rapidly picks up speed.

Now lets imagine a tunnel through the earth! A 1 Km tunnel will only have a slight inclination and the train would accelerate slowly. It would be a pleasant trip for the entire family. But a 5000 Km train would go steeply into the ground, the train would accelerate with an amazing rate. It would be a hell of a ride! This explains how we always get the same travel time: the 1 Km tunnel is short and the velocity would remain low, the 5000 Km is long, but the velocity would become enormous.

Here is how the hell ride through the 5000 Km tunnel looks in detail:

The red, monotonous increasing curve, shows distance traveled (in Km) versus time (in seconds), the blue curve shows velocity (in Km/s) versus time. In the center of the tunnel the train reaches the maximum velocity of about 3 Km/s, which corresponds to an incredible 6700 mi/h!

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I read this problem recently, too! It’s a good one.