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Swiss to breakthrough with world's longest rail tunnel

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 15, 2010 3:33 pm    Post subject: Swiss to breakthrough with world's longest rail tunnel Reply with quote

Swiss to breakthrough with world's longest rail tunnel

Last centimetres of rock to be bore through today in 57km project that will cut journey times and relieve congested roads

    * The Guardian, Friday 15 October 2010

Gotthard Base tunnel When it opens for rail services in 2017, the Gotthard Base tunnel will supplant Japan's Seikan tunnel (53.8km) as the longest of its kind.

A miner stands in front of the drill machine  Photograph: Christian Hartmann/Reuters

In 1947, the engineer Carl Eduard Gruner sketched out a vision of a Swiss future: a tunnel carved deep into the rock of the Alps that would enable trains to travel from his birthplace, Basel, in the north, to Chiasso, in the south, in just two hours.

At the time, his idea seemed outlandish and impossibly futuristic. But today, more than 60 years after he gave it a name, and nearly two decades after construction was begun, the Gotthard Base tunnel (GBT) will finally be completed.

At 57km (35 miles), it will be the longest railway tunnel in the world and will cut the journey time from Zurich to Milan by 60 minutes to two-and-a-half hours. With high-speed trains running at near ground level through the towering Gotthard massif, both passengers and freight will just as Gruner predicted be carried through the mountains in under two hours.

"We cannot wait for the final breakthrough," said Rahel Probst, a spokesman for the AlpTransit rail network constructing the tunnel. "Everyone who has worked on this project is very proud to have taken part in a work that will be a world record."

This afternoon, in the presence of the Swiss transport minister, Moritz Leuenberger, and the virtual presence of his EU counterparts, watching the ceremony via a video-link to Luxembourg, a giant drilling machine called Sissi will bore through the final centimetres of rock to connect both ends of the tunnel.

A giant drilling machine completes the world's longest tunnel beneath the Swiss Alps  Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

As the tunnel workers from both sides clamber through to shake hands, they will take with them photographs of eight colleagues the youngest 23 who lost their lives during the construction. "In memory of our late colleagues," read a poster pinned to the GBT noticeboard.

Since laying the tunnel's preparations in 1996, around 2,500 workers have taken part in building the 10bn Swiss franc (6.6bn) project, blasting their way through 13m cubic metres of rock in artificially lowered temperatures that still reached 28C.

Due to open for service in 2017, the GBT is expected to relieve pressure on congested Alpine roads that connect northern Europe and Italy and have suffered a huge increase in traffic since 1980.

"The Gotthard Base tunnel is a milestone on the way to taking freight traffic off the road and on to rail," said Peter Fueglistaler, director of the Swiss Federal Transport Office. Environmentalists have warned that the large number of trucks crossing the Alps was causing untold damage to Switzerland's snow-peaked pride and joy.

A worker and a visitor stand in Erstfeld-Amsteg section of the tunnel  Photograph: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

Concerns over the ecological impact of so many vehicles on Swiss roads was one of the main reasons why, in a series of referendums in the 1990s, the country's voters chose to approve the tunnel's construction at an estimated cost of 800 per person. But, according to Leuenberger, the project was always a risky one.

"There have always been wise guys and sceptics predicting that it wouldn't work," he told the website Swissinfo.ch, adding: "A tunnel is only constructed once the final breakthrough has been made. Before that, there are always geological risks. We told the population clearly about these risks. But the citizens nonetheless agreed."

The north portal of the tunnel in the Swiss village of Erstfeld  Photograph: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

The GBT has over the years become a model of future rail travel, with two similar but less ambitious projects being launched in various parts of the Alps in France, Austria and Italy. On Tuesday, the EU transport commissioner, Siim Kallas, paid tribute to its grandeur, calling it a "remarkable project".

Workers place reinforcing bars at a fork in the tunnel near Faido in the canton of Ticino, Switzerland  Photograph: Martin Ruetschi/AP

A worker rests at the track change between the two tunnels in the Faido section Photograph: Martin Ruetschi/AP
Once it is transformed into one continuous line this afternoon, the GBT will be longer than the 53.8km Seikan rail tunnel in Japan and more than double the length of the longest road tunnel, the 24.5km-long Laerdal in Norway.
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