The idea of a flat route through the Alps is hardly new: as long ago as 1947, engineer and transport planner Carl Eduard Gruner unveiled plans for a road and rail tunnel between Amsteg and Bodio.
The Swiss government set up a “Railway Tunnel through the Alps” committee (KEA) in 1963, tasked with evaluating the various options for a base tunnel. However, political disagreements and economic difficulties meant that none of the proposals attracted majority backing. This included the suggestion put forward by SBB, which devised the construction project for the Gotthard base line between Erstfeld and Biasca in 1971 on behalf of the Swiss Federal Council. It was not until 1989 that the Federal Council approved the so-called network option, which envisaged combining a Gotthard Base Tunnel, a Lötschberg Base Tunnel and a Hirzel Tunnel to provide a link to eastern Switzerland. Nevertheless, it took another 20 years and many other variants and line routings before the foundation stone for the Gotthard Base Tunnel was laid.
«New Rail Link through the Alps» (NRLA).
Its location right at the heart of the continent makes Switzerland an important hub in European freight and passenger traffic. To meet the requirements for the transit agreement with the European Community, on 27 September 1992 the Swiss people approved the federal decree on building the «New Rail Link through the Alps» (NRLA) and thus the construction of new base tunnels under the Lötschberg, Gotthard and Monte Ceneri passes.
Excavation work on the Gotthard Base Tunnel took place between 1999 and 2011, with the first major breakthrough finally achieved on 15 October 2010 between Sedrun and Faido. This was done with a high degree of precision – the two diggers were out by a mere 8 cm horizontally and 1 cm vertically. Since then, the north and south of Switzerland have been linked by a tunnel 57 kilometres long.
On 1 June 2016, 17 years after blasting work was first carried out in the main gallery, the longest rail tunnel in the world will be officially opened. There is still a fair bit to do until then: before trains can travel through the longest tunnel in the world, all the systems and installations must be checked thoroughly. AlpTransit Gotthard AG and SBB are currently scrutinising the interaction between all the tunnel’s components by carrying out hundreds of test runs. You can follow the countdown to the grand opening at gottardo2016.ch
To finish, we have put together a few impressive statistics on the building of the Gotthard Base Tunnel:
- 260 to 320 trains per day will be able to use the new north-south link: 40–60 passenger and 220–260 freight trains.
- The highest mountain directly above the Gotthard Base Tunnel reaches an impressive 2,300 m.
- 176 cross-passages connect the tunnel’s two tubes – one every 325 metres.
- 2,600 kilometres of fibre-optic cables are laid in the tunnel. That would stretch from Zurich to Reykjavik.
- 28 million tonnes of rock have been removed through drilling or blasting.
- Passengers will spend 17 minutes in the 57km-long tunnel if their train travels at 200 km/h.
- Temperatures in the tunnel can reach 35°C and are highest at the tunnel exit.