Ends meet at world's longest tunnel under Swiss Alps

13th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

A giant drilling machine will complete the world's longest tunnel beneath the Swiss Alps on Friday, paving the way for continuous high-speed rail travel between northern and southeastern Europe.

The ceremonial breakthrough in the 57-kilometre (35.4-mile) long Gotthard base tunnel through the foot of the Alps is due to take place 30 kilometres (19 miles) from one end and 2,000 metres below a mountain.

Eight of some 2,500 tunnel workers have died since construction of the new railway link began in central Switzerland 15 years ago, blasting and boring through 13 million cubic metres of rock in hot and humid conditions.

By the time it opens for service in 2017, it will exceed the 53.8-kilometre Seikan rail tunnel linking the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido and the world's longest road tunnel, the 24.5-kilometre Laerdal in Norway.

Although the near 10 billion Swiss franc (7.0 billion euro) project is Swiss, it has fast taken on a continental dimension with the aim of unclogging one of the main north-south commercial routes between Germany and Italy.

European Union Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas on Tuesday called the new Gotthard tunnel "a remarkable project".

Transport ministers from the 27-nation bloc are due to watch the breakthrough ceremony live on television during a regular meeting in Luxembourg, officials said. Switzerland is a not a member of the EU.

The tunnel would cut one hour from the transalpine rail journey, and drive booming road freight off congested Swiss mountain roads onto more environmentally sound rail.

"The Gotthard base tunnel is a milestone on the way to taking freight traffic off the road and onto rail," said Peter Fueglistaler, director of the Federal Transport Office.

Switzerland nonethless struggled to convince sceptical European neighbours after Swiss voters supported an ecologist motion to ban heavy trucks from the Alps -- including the expanding flow of transiting EU goods traffic -- in a shock referendum result in 1994.

In recent years, Austria, France and Italy have set in motion two similar rail tunnel projects through the eastern and western Alps.

"The European Union has made great strides in our direction," said Swiss Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger.

Last month, Leuenberger handed over a ticket for a post-2017 Gotthard crossing to each of his EU colleagues.

Around 300 trains should be able to speed through the twin tubes every day, at up to 250 kilometres per hour (155 mph) for passenger trains, according to planners.

The current ageing and narrow 15-kilometre tunnel higher up the flanks of the St. Gotthard can cope with just a fraction of that capacity at less than half the speed.

It was nonetheless a global engineering feat when it was completed 128 years ago, having claimed the lives of some 200 tunnel workers.

By the time the 9.5-metre (29-feet) wide tunnel drilling machine breaks through the remaining metre of rock on Friday, the overall cost of the new base tunnel and other revamped rail lines through the Swiss Alps will reach nearly 19 billion francs.

For locals in the mountains, meanwhile, it almost brings the 63 year-old dream of a Swiss engineer to life.

In 1947 Carl Eduard Gruner envisaged not only a tunnel through the foot of the mountains at the same location, but a high speed train network that would whisk tourists between continents and allow them to stop at a gateway to the Alps.

Tentative plans for the "Porta Alpina" station halfway along the new Gotthard tunnel were shelved because of the cost, 50 million francs.

But a huge cavern and evacuation siding has been prepared beneath the village of Sedrun, at the foot of an 800-metre lift shaft built by southern African mining specialists and close to some ambitious ski resorts.

© 2010 AFP

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