Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Swiss inaugurate world's longest rail tunnel

Published:Thursday | June 2, 2016 | 6:00 AM
In this Friday, September 25, 2015 file photo, an aerial view shows a Eurostar train entering Euro Tunnel, outside Coquelles, northern France.

European dignitaries on Wednesday inaugurated the 57-km Gotthard Railway Tunnel, a major engineering achievement deep under the Alps' snow-capped peaks.

It took 17 years to build at a cost of 12.2 billion Swiss francs (US$12 billion), but workers kept to a key Swiss tradition and brought the massive project in on time and on budget.

Many tunnels criss-cross the Swiss Alps. The Gotthard Pass itself already has two - the first, also for trains, was built in 1882. But the Gotthard base tunnel is a record-setter, eclipsing Japan's 53.8-kilometre Seikan Tunnel as the world's longest - and it also bores deeper than any other tunnel, running about 2.3 km underground at its maximum depth.

The tube bores through the Gotthard massif which includes the 2,500-meter (8,200-foot) Piz Vatgira on the way to Italy. It is part of a broader, multi-tunnel project to shift the haulage of goods from roads to rails amid concerns that heavy trucks are destroying Switzerland's pristine Alpine landscape.

The tunnel's impact will be felt across Europe for decades.

The thoroughfare aims to cut travel times, ease roadway traffic and reduce the air pollution spewed from trucks travelling between Europe's north and south. Set to open for commercial service in December, the two-way tunnel can handle up to 260 freight trains and 65 passenger trains per day.

Swiss planners have dreamt of such a tunnel for decades, and Gotthard's 17 years of construction do not include the many years spent to scope out suitable paths.

Switzerland pulled out all the stops for Wednesday's inauguration. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Francois Hollande of France and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi all came to southern Switzerland for an upbeat, glitzy celebration featuring musical bands, dancers and even a theme song for the tunnel.

VIBRANT CELEBRATION

Under purple neon lights, performers dressed in orange miners' suits and protective helmets danced atop a moving rail car, while others in skimpy outfits feigned wrestling, and trapeze artists hung from chains or ropes.

The tunnel runs between the German-speaking Swiss town of Erstfeld in the north to the Italian-speaking town of Bodio in the south, cutting through central Switzerland. The tunnel journey takes about 20 minutes for passenger trains.

Split-screen TV images on Wednesday showed two trains in opposite directions entering and leaving the tunnel entrances nearly simultaneously.

The project, funded in part by Swiss taxpayers and fees on trucks, received financial support and industrial know-how from around the European Union. Although Switzerland i not one of the bloc's 28 members, the EU railway network gets a big boost from this shortcut through the Alps, notably on the route from Germany to Italy.

"The new tunnel fits into the European railway freight corridor, which links Rotterdam and Genoa" key ports in the Netherlands and Italy, said Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann. "Aside from saving time, more merchandise can be carried through the Alps."

A test run by the EU leaders on Wednesday turned into a sort of mini-summit beneath real Alpine summits: Merkel, Renzi, Hollande and Schneider-Ammann sat face-to-face for a ride in first class through the tunnel.

Swiss forces took no chances with security for the inauguration. Almost 2,000 additional Swiss troops were called, helicopters buzzed overhead, and airspace restrictions were put over the tunnel area.