When tunnels need to be dug in fiction (particularly by the Tunnel King), they're usually dug very quickly. Ridiculously quickly. At rates that are flatly not possible, often in the range of several metres per second, without use of explosives or specialized boring machines. By way of reference, the fastest boring machine in history can only manage 4.5 metres per hour, with an experienced crew to run it, and to run all of the support systems, like removing waste rock and lining the tunnel behind the machine, which are very often ignored in fictional tunnelling.
Note that this trope only applies to characters digging far faster than their abilities and equipment should allow. Rock-shapers, earthbenders, Superman and similar characters do not generally fall under this trope. Expect a Wormsign to show up near the surface.
Compare Dishing Out Dirt. May be possible with a Drill Tank.
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One episode of Cats Eye involved the girls, who are not expert miners by any means, drifting a tunnel a good fifty metres long in just a few hours. Granted, they're using proper machinery, and going through relatively soft rock, but that only brings it down to "ridiculously fast" rather than "ludicrously." To give credit where it's due, waste rock disposal and the shoring up of the tunnel are given consideration.
The Mole, one of Mandrake The Magician's recurring villains, regularly wore a suit with a head-mounted wide heat beam capable of burning through anything. It also had a jetpack. That's right, the beam burned away rock and earth with no residue fast enough that he could fly along the tunnel as it was being made. He used it to rob banks.
Hellhounds in the Fallout: Equestria universe are known for their razor-sharp claws, ability to use modern weaponry, and their ability to dig. The last one is a vital part of some of their combat tactics.
In Red Lightning Burrowing Owl has this as one of his two powers, and he uses this the most commonly.
The Graboids in the Tremors franchise travel underground at incredible speed using this method, pushing themselves along with the spines covering their bodies and ramming earth aside with bulletproof heads. In more localized projects, they are also able to bury a car, eat the foundation from under a house, and dig a pit trap for an earthmover in relatively short order. A nod to realism is given in that though they can move easily through sand and soil, any kind of stone remains a barrier. One kills itself by attempting to ram through the concrete wall of a drainage gully.
The Core features a giant tunneling drill train thing to quickly tunnel to the center of the Earth. These are called subterrenes in Real Life.
Deep Core uses combinations of drills and Frickin' Laser Beams to quickly go through rock. In Deep Core, the test of the prototype subterrene (intended by the military as yet another method of nuclear delivery) results in the massive shift of the tectonic plate.
Averted and played straight in Short Circuit 2; the bad guys' plan involves tunneling under the bank vault a set of valuable jewels are being held before they're taken to a museum for display. It's implied they had started the tunnel quite a while before our heroes unwittingly shack up in the building above their operation, and with their presence interrupting their digging, they'll never be able to make it to the vault in time. Once they trick Number 5 into doing their job for them, he blazes the rest of the trail to the vault in a few hours. Justified, though, as it's been established that Number 5 is both super-strong and can do such manual labor in record speed.
Parodied in Top Secret! when Nick returns to the lab to free the professor, who is behind a tarp dropping a small spoonful of dirt into a small pile.
Professor: But had almost finished my tunnel!
Nick peers behind the tarp to find a modern road tunnel complete with paving, concrete wall and electric lighting.
Nick [surprised]: Nice work.
The Great Escape at least shows a bit of the logistics: Where do you put the dirt you dig out from the ground, how do you make sure the tunnel won't collapse, and where do you get the materials to stabilize it? Especially if you're watched by nazi soldiers.
Averted in The Wizardry Quested, part of the Wiz Biz series by Rick Cook, when a band of dwarves considers entering a castle by tunnelling into the cellars, but decide against it because they don't have the needed three years.
Dwarves in Artemis Fowl eat their way through the ground, and do so at very high speeds - faster than they can run.
Averted in Animorphs when they use mole forms to dig a tunnel to the yeerk pool. In the two hour limit they barely get 6 feet dug, and at the angle of decent means they only got 1 foot below ground. Not only that but they miss the intended destination and end up in a bat cave that just happened to border the Yeerk Pool.
In Oath Of Fealty, the Todos Santos crew dig under the LA jail to extract a colleague, all in a single night. Justified in that they're using the very latest in mining technology, a boring machine that melts the rock in front of it and cools it as it passes to leave a perfect and pre-lined tunnel behind (something like an advanced version of the subterrene in the Real Life section). It's also specifically stated to be "the world's slowest getaway vehicle", but "slow" here means "compared to, say, a police car"; a few miles per hour is damn fast for a tunneling machine, and they can more or less leave it behind and recover it later:. They know the LA police will know who's responsible, but since they have properly reported the machine as stolen to their own internal police department, they also know the LA police won't be able to actually prove it.
Very much a source of drama in Fantastic Mr. Fox, where the fox family must dig for their lives to escape Boggis and Bunce and Bean's mechanical shovels.
Now there began a desperate race, the machines against the foxes.
Unseen but implied to have happened in Hogan's Heroes, where Hogan's men have dug so many tunnels that one is surprised the camp doesn't fall in.
Downplayed, though, as the new tunnels they dig are depicted as very narrow and small, and with several men working for hours they don't manage to go very far. It's only later on that each tunnel winds up resembling an entire second story. As said above, it's a little unnerving that the entire camp is just a sinkhole waiting to happen.
Star Trek: The Original Series: The Horta ("Devil in the Dark") has a very strong acid that it uses to dissolve rock to form tunnels-problem is that this process is depicted as being virtually instantaneous, and there is virtually no detritus left over other than a few wafting vapors.
Used to get to the center of the Earth in Saul of the Mole Men.
Before there was Champions Online, Champions had the Tunneling power and characters for whom this was their primary movement ability.
Any creature with a burrow speed in Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. Typically you can burrow at half the speed you can run.
Although since you can't run while digging; in practice it ends up at a fairly realistic speed. The most common burrow speed is 15 feet per round, or 1.7 miles per hour.
In the old Palladium System, it's possible to have a character that can tunnel faster than they can walk!
Seems to be the inspiration behind the "Tunneling" travel-power in Champions Online (the animation for which resembles Bugs Bunny's style below)
Dwarf Fortress has this trope, although the time dilation might make it more plausible. Also, they're dwarves.
It's also mentioned in the story Summoned to Darkness. A single dwarf dug an amazing escape tunnel in a few weeks with no tools.
Dwarf Fortress is not as egregious as it seems. You still have to figure out how to manage all the leftover stone.
Legendary miners are probably the epitome of this trope. They literally dig out tunnels as fast as they walk.
In the Pokémon Diamond and Pearl and Platinum, there is 'Ruin Maniac' that challenges you to collect a certain rare Pokémon (Unown) before he finishes digging a tunnel, aptly called 'Maniac Tunnel'. The more versions of Unown you collect, the longer the tunnel becomes. Closer to the end of your collection (i.e. after obtaining 26 out of 28 Unown), the man has singlehandedly dug the tunnel hundreds of feet long — even if you only take a few hours to collect the required variants of the Unown — with the tunnel itself leading to the two variants of Unown needed to finish one's collection. The townspeople outside lampshade this by talking about how crazy the guy is.
In any of the games, you can use the Dig skill to near-instantly tunnel out of a cave, no matter how far you'd have to travel to do so. Of course, you can also instantly exit any cave or building with an "escape rope," which makes about as much sense.
Dig Dug lives by this, as does any video game that involves mining.
The pneumatic drill and blowtorch "weapons" in Worms.
The Yellow Drill Wisps in Sonic Colors also utilize this as a means to get to secret rooms and pathways. The tunnels made are filled back up just as fast, though.
Players in Minecraft easily dig a fifty meter long tunnel in a matter of minutes. Faster, if they can get themselves a diamond tool. And carrying 2240 cubic metres of cobbled/solid rock around with them doesn't slow the process down at all.
As of 1.0, tools can be enchanted to improve various aspects including the speed at which they break blocks. With the best efficiency enchantment, a diamond pick will break stone-based blocks INSTANTLY.
Mario in Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario Galaxy 2 can dig extremely quickly when it's necessary, in the former to the bottom of a pyramid's underground chamber in minutes, in the latter through whole planets in seconds when using the drill. Bowser I think also digs an extremely long tunnel as part of the main quest in Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, in probably hours at most.
In Donkey Kong Country Returns, this is true of the level where DK and Diddy are chasing the Drill Tank driven by various enemy moles. Indeed, the tank/train is drilling fast enough to be faster than the ROCKET DK and co are riding on at the time (to the point the player has to steer the rocket barrel through the tunnels the thing is carving out while they're still being carved).
Both played straight and subverted in NetHack. If you find an uncursed pickaxe or a dwarfish mattock you become an expert digger just by wielding it, but the act of digging out a square burns much more time then walking through an existing corridor. (And eventually you have to eat.) The Wand of Digging, on the other hand, blasts through a line of squares instantaneously. You can also polymorph into a Xorn which, like the Dungeons & Dragons original, can walk right through dungeon walls.
Zerg units in Starcraft and its sequel can burrow, making them invisible. This is a valid strategy to take the heat off your front line units during combat, forcing the enemy to switch targets to healthy units instead. The can burrow into dirt, rock, asphalt with the same ease and even in bridges...somehow. This even works with the ultralisk, a mutated six-legged elephant so big it looms over tanks and tramples force walls but is nevertheless capable of burrowing completely underground in less time than it takes a missile to travel to it. Roaches and Infestors fit this trope perfectly, as they can actually tunnel underground.
Similarly in Warcraft 3 Crypt Fiends can burrow down fast enough to escape someone trying to kill them. They can still be killed by aiming siege weaponry at the ground though, so apparently they don't go that far.
Imps and Dwarves in Dungeon Keeper dig out tunnels big enough for a dragon to walk down at an incredible rate, especially once the imps get Super Speed.
The Mass Effect universe contains enormous Sand Worms called Thresher Maws who are able to tunnel faster than ground vehicles can move. They also only cause tremors and Wormsigns when they dig, rather than the massive ground collapses you'd think. In Mass Effect 3, a particularly enormous one is also able to drag other massive (as in 200 metres tall!) objects underground with it, again without explaining where all the soil disappears to as it digs.
Many monsters in Monster Hunter will dig underground in order to move through/between areas at speeds ranging from extremely fast to borderline teleportation. Most notable are the Diablos/Monoblos and Agnaktor, because they usually try to come up from underneath you...
Spelunky allows a player with a matlock to instantly remove dirt or rock in their path. Bombs clear a large section very quickly as well. This is often the easiest and safest way to make your way through any given stage.
Shows up with the character Boris from Trinton Chronicles who's main mode of transport is super-fast digging. It helps his power also restores the ground to pristine shape including repairing pipes, reconstructing cement floors, and undoing damage his huge claws create every time he burrows.
SWAT Kats had a digging machine that got underground in seconds.
The Simpsons did this when Bart fell down a well and the townspeople dug a parallel hole to get at him.
At the end of the episode "Homer the Vigilante", all of the townspeople dig a hole looking for buried treasure, but find an empty trunk. Not at all discouraged by this, they continue digging well into the night until they find themselves at the bottom of a very deep pit.
Otto: How do we get out?
Homer: We'll dig our way out!
Chief Wiggum: No, no, dig up, stupid!
The eponymous drill from the second season episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender "The Drill" goes through the roughly 20-metre-thick compressed granite wall of Ba Sing Se in perhaps two hours.
Shows up on Jimmy Two-Shoes, where Jimmy and Beezy tunnel into both Heloise's and Lucius' homes in a matter of seconds.
Rather inverted by Kim Possible, who briefly had Superman-type powers in one episode. She could drill through dirt and rock by spinning at a high speed, but unlike Superman, or even a Tasmanian Devil, she looked visibly nauseous from the effort.
The Tick encountered this when the Mole Men came to visit the surface world so the Mole King could find a girlfriend (he does, in the Christie Brinkley Expy Mindy Moleford, who is one-quarter Mole Man, apparently).
Gopher, complete with a Wormsign, in The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Amusingly, when the viewpoint goes underground we find that he's not only traveled, but also set up very large mining tunnels braced with timber in that time.
A villain with a digging machine shows up briefly at the very end of The Incredibles.