Zurich (dpa) – The countdown to the official opening of the world’s longest rail tunnel, the Gotthard Base Tunnel under the mighty Alps of Europe, is running, with a state inaugural ceremony set for June 1, 2016.
Express trains will soon be able to run from the North Sea to the Mediterranean without having to climb any steep inclines to get to a tunnel entrance. They will not even slow down as they charge under the Alps, holding speeds of up to 250 kilometres an hour inside the tunnel itself.
But the tunnel’s main objective is not to speed up passenger service. The Swiss kicked off the 20-year construction project in 1996 to facilitate the movement of goods through the mountains in an economically profitable and environmentally friendly way.
Increasing freight traffic to 260 trains per day from 180 per day on the old line is aimed at cutting back on road use through the Alps, the main barrier between northern and southern Europe. With fewer trucks grinding their gears up motorway inclines to the passes, fragile Alpine flora and fauna can be better protected. The edelweiss, eagles and chamois are all beloved by the Swiss.
At 57 kilometres, this tunnel will be seven kilometres longer than the Channel Tunnel between England and France. It runs from Erstfeld in the central canton of Uri to Bodio in the south-eastern canton of Ticino.
The central government in Bern has stumped up 12 million Swiss francs (a little more than 12 million dollars) to celebrate the opening of the key section of the “New Railway Link through the Alps” or NRLA – also known in the multi-lingual federation by its German abbreviation NEAT, its French NLFA and its Italian NFTA.
That amount pales into insignificance alongside the 12.2 billion francs that constructing the Gotthard Base Tunnel cost. The entire NRLA, including another tunnel on the same line, the Ceneri, and a parallel route via the Loetschberg Base Tunnel, is budgeted at 21.3 billion francs. The final stage of the Ceneri Base Tunnel is due for completion in 2020.
This, the largest investment project ever in Switzerland, was approved in a November 1998 referendum – the standard way of doing things in the federation.
In line with this, hundreds of ordinary Swiss will be aboard the first train to pass through the new tunnel, probably being awarded tickets in a lottery.
Those who miss out will have to await the completion of tests, with more than 3,000 trial runs scheduled before the track is finally cleared for use in December 2016.
At that stage the old Gotthard Tunnel between Goeschenen and Airolo, which went into operation in 1882, can be pensioned off. In its time, this 15-kilometre tunnel was itself an engineering marvel.
The new tunnel is much deeper – its highest point is only 550 metres above sea level – and is much straighter and has much less in the way of inclines, meaning fewer locomotives will be needed. The peaks of the St Gotthard massif tower up to 2,300 metres above the new tunnel, by contrast with 1,100 above the old.
The travel time between Zurich and Lugano will be cut by around 45 minutes to two hours in a country where travel by train is part of everyday life for most.
With freight traffic constantly on the rise, a significant reduction in exhaust emissions is expected only after the completion of two further tunnels in neighbouring countries.
One is the Mont d’Ambin Base Tunnel between Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne in France and Susa in Italy, also measuring 57 kilometres and also carrying trains travelling above 200 kilometres an hour, but unlikely to go into operation before 2026.
The other is the 55-kilometre Brenner Base Tunnel from Innsbruck in Austria to Fortezza in Italy. Including the Innsbruck railway bypass, which has already been built, the tunnel will be 64 kilometres long and the longest rail tunnel in the world. Completion is set for 2026.