World's longest tunnel breaks down Swiss Alpine barrier
A giant drilling machine was punching its way through a final section of Alpine rock Friday to complete the world's longest tunnel, after 15 years of sometimes lethal construction work.
The 57 kilometre (35.4 mile) high speed rail link, which will open in 2017, will form the lynchpin of a new rail network between northern and southeastern Europe and help ease congestion and pollution in the Swiss Alps.
It is the third tunnel to be built through the snowbound St. Gotthard area but it is much the longest and three kilometers longer than a rail link between two Japanese islands, the current record holder.
"The myth of the Gotthard has been broken for a third time. Our forefathers struggled from the Middle Ages onwards to make this mountain passable," Peter Fueglistaler, director of the Federal Transport office, told journalists gathered for Friday's final breakthrough.
A 9.5 metre wide drilling machine has been put in place to pummel its way through the remaining 1.5 metres of rock and engineers expect the work to join the two ends of the tunnel will be completed by 1230 GMT.
Swiss Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger has hailed the tunnel as "a spectacular and grandiose monument" which will become a new benchmark.
The stage-managed breakthrough, attended by some 200 dignitaries 30 kilometres inside the tunnel, is being broadcast live on Swiss television and watched by European Union transport ministers at a meeting in Luxembourg.
Passengers will ultimately be able to speed from the Italian city of Milan to Zurich in less than three hours and further north into Germany, cutting the journey time by an hour.
But the 9.8 billion Swiss franc (7.0 billion euro) tunnel is also the fruit of strong popular wave of environmental concern about pollution in the Swiss Alps with booming road traffic transiting from neighbouring countries.
The new Gotthard tunnel 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.
Switzerland nonetheless struggled to convince sceptical European neighbours to support the ambitious and costly transalpine rail plans.
But they gained added weight in a shock 1994 referendum result when Swiss voters supported an ecologist motion to stop heavy trucks driving across the Alps -- including the expanding flow of transiting EU goods traffic.
A nationwide opinion poll published on Wednesday suggested that that sentiment is undimmed.
Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed support a ban on truck traffic through the Gotthard road tunnel and move it onto rail, according to the poll commissioned by an Alpine environmental lobby group.
In recent years, Austria, France and Italy have set in motion two similar rail tunnel projects through the eastern and western Alps, that are both planned to exceed 50 kilometres in length in the 2020s.
Once completed, around 300 trains should be able to speed through the Gotthard's twin tubes every day, at up to 250 kilometres per hour (155 mph) for passenger trains, according to planners.
Apart from the tunnel's economic and environmental implications, the spotlight is on more than 2,000 tunnel workers, especially in the wake of the rescue of Chile's trapped miners.
The builders from about a dozen countries are being feted at a celebration just above the breakthrough point in the mist-bound mountain village of Sedrun.
Eight have died since construction began 15 years ago, blasting and boring through 13 million cubic metres of rock in hot and humid conditions.
"Through their years of tireless commitment, they have made this world record possible," said Renzo Simoni, chief executive of the Alptransit tunnel company on Friday.
"The miners are the heroes of today's celebrations," he added.
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 as well when it was completed 128 years ago, having claimed the lives of some 200 tunnel workers.
© 2010 AFP