Swiss open world’s longest tunnel

Swiss open world’s longest tunnel

Gotthard base tunnel. Source: Wikimedia

The Gotthard base tunnel, cutting under 57km of Alpine mountains, costing US$12 billion and taking 17 years to complete, has been opened.

Switzerland ran an inaugural train through the world’s longest and deepest rail tunnel connecting Europe’s main north-south rail line running from Rotterdam in the Netherlands to Genoa in northern Italy. Produce currently carried by a million lorries a year can now go by rail.

The engineering feat overtakes Japan’s 53.9km Seikan train tunnel as the longest in the world and pushes the 50.5km Channel Tunnel linking the Britain and France to third place.

Around 260 freight trains and 65 passenger trains will pass through the tunnel on average each day once it is operational after a series of tests later this year. The current curving route through the Alps requires two or three engines. With the new flat, straight tunnel, a train can speed between the villages of Erstfeld and Bodio in 17 minutes, linking Rotterdam and Genoa at around 250kmh.

Alpine communities have complained about the air and noise pollution for years while HGV drivers dislike the tunnel’s single-lane structure. In 2001 two trucks crashed in the tunnel, causing a fire which killed 11 people.

Once work began, challenges soon became apparent. In some areas the rock was apparently “as soft as butter” meaning excavation moved at around 50cm a day.

In other places a massive 10m-diameter tunnel-boring machine could, on its most productive days, dig out around 40m of tunnel a day, setting a world record.

With no danger of collision, trains will pass through the twin tunnels at up to 250kmh. Around 2,400 construction staff created the new rail link. Nine deaths were recorded during the construction, which involved drilling holes through the mountainous terrain and removing around 28 million tonnes of rock.

Plans for a better rail tunnel have been discussed since the 1940s, but it was not until 1992 that the Swiss electorate backed the government’s plan to build a high-speed rail link through the mountains.

As the world’s deepest tunnel, with 2.5km of mountain pressing down on it, reinforced steel rings had to be inserted to prevent it collapsing.

The leaders of Switzerland’s neighbours, including Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, attended the opening ceremony.

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