Switzerland Celebrates World's Longest Rail Tunnel

  • Share
  • Read Later
Christian Hartmann / Reuters

Engineers celebrate after completing drilling for the Gotthard Base Tunnel, Oct. 15, 2010

Pride and euphoria swept through Switzerland last week when a gargantuan drilling machine emerged through the rocks deep under the Alps to join the two ends of the world's longest railroad tunnel. The 35-mile (57 km) Gotthard Base Tunnel is an extraordinary engineering achievement: over 12 years, 2,600 workers battled dust, noise and heat beneath up to 1.5 miles of mountain to remove 23 million tons of rock — the equivalent of moving five Grand Pyramids of Cheops. When the $12 billion project is completed in 2017, a high-speed rail link will run through the mountain base, slashing journey times across the Alps by an hour.

But the tunnel is more than just a monument to human ingenuity. It is a response to the environmental and logistical problems of our time. By creating super-fast rail links through mountains, Switzerland and the rest of Europe hope to boost trade and travel while cutting emissions and congestion.

Famously pristine, Switzerland has impeccable environmental credentials. Over the past two decades, concerns about increasing congestion, rising global fuel costs and ecological sustainability have spurred innovative engineering projects. Rail cargo now accounts for 35% of all shipments within Switzerland, compared with 18% in the E.U. as a whole. When it comes to cross-alpine freight, the Swiss figure is 61%, more than twice as much as in the other alpine countries such as Germany (27%) and France (25%). And that's no small victory for Swiss Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger, who recently praised the tunnel as an environmental triumph as well as an engineering marvel. "With this tunnel, we are helping to build Europe's infrastructure," he said. "We are helping to shape our continent's sustainability and in solidarity by pushing ahead with the transfer of traffic from our roads to the rails."

Indeed, the Swiss have pedigree when it comes to building alpine tunnels. The first 9-mile (15 km) Gotthard Rail Tunnel carved though the Alps opened in 1882. The 10.6-mile (16 km) St. Gotthard Road Tunnel opened in 1980, and now about 3,500 lorries squeeze through this bottleneck every day. In 1947, Swiss engineers floated plans for a flat Gotthard base tunnel to accommodate faster trains and heavier cargo loads, but construction only began in 1998.

Some 150 freight trains cross the 1882 Gotthard rail pass every day. The new tunnel will increase this to more than 200, and because the new route is flat, it will accommodate longer freight trains that pull up to 4,000 metric tons, twice the current weight, while doing away with complicated coupling and shunting services. That means annual freight-transportation capacity will more than double from the current 20 million tons to around 50 million tons.

For passenger services, the journey time of three hours and 40 minutes from Zurich to Milan on the Cisalpino tilting train will be cut by an hour, with trains whizzing through the mountain at speeds of up to 100 m.p.h. (160 km/h). "Others ought to follow Swiss leadership and vision by dedicating more investment in long-term projects that will enhance transportation and logistics infrastructure," says Keith Biondo, publisher of Inbound Logistics magazine. "History continues to show us that the better the connectivity between different economies and cultures, the higher the tide of economic fortunes rise for all involved."

Analysts believe the Gotthard Base Tunnel will be pivotal to integrating the growing high-speed train network within Europe, while bringing major economic centers on both sides of the Alps closer together. "The Gotthard Base Tunnel is not an end in itself. It is a substantial component of most important north-south European freight route," says Peter Füglistaler, director of the Swiss Federal Office of Transport, predicting that more environmentally friendly rail travel could eventually replace short-haul flights.

Similar projects are under way elsewhere in the Alps. Work on the 9.6-mile (15 km) Ceneri Base Tunnel began in 2006 and, when completed in 2019, it will be an important feeder in the south for the Gotthard Base Tunnel. Other tunnels being built or planned nearby include the 8.4-mile (13 km) Wienerwaldtunnel west of Vienna, the 35-mile (56 km) Brenner Base Tunnel running from Innsbruck in Austria to Fortezza in Italy, the 33-mile (53 km) Mont d'Ambin Base Tunnel between France and Italy and the 20.5-mile (33 km) Koralm Tunnel under Austria's Koralpe mountain range.

A key component in this developing trade dynamic is ensuring Europe's railroad infrastructure and networks can support the increased volume and growth. Over the past two decades, as Europe's network of high-speed railways has come into existence, freight and passenger traffic has gradually shifted to trains.

Last month, the European Commission set out new measures to improve pan-European rail services, placing the Gotthard Base Tunnel within a cross-continent link from Rotterdam in the Netherlands to Genoa in Italy. "My dream can be called the Single European Railway Area in 2050," E.U. Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said. "In this vision, railways will be dominating freight transport over distances of more than 300 km [186 miles]." The moves coincide with efforts to liberalize the E.U.'s rail networks: this month Eurostar unveiled a new generation of trains, which aims to compete on broader European services, just as rail operators like Germany's Deutsche Bahn seek to gain a foothold in the lucrative cross-Channel rail link.

For centuries, the Alps have been an impregnable obstacle. Hannibal famously needed elephants to help move his armies across the mountain range. Yet, despite its unfeasible topography, Switzerland is now poised at Europe's transport nexus. For a tiny country perched precariously on the continent's geographic crease, that's an achievement worth celebrating.