Gotthard Base Tunnel: World's longest passenger tunnel opens in December

It is the world's longest, deepest traffic tunnel and when it opens officially in December, passenger trains will speed through its 57.1 kilometre length at up to 250km/h, 2.3 kilometres under the Swiss Alps.

Anyone with an unhealthy interest in tunnels will already know that the new Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT) in Switzerland actually "opened" on June 1 this year, when the construction company handed over the completed tunnel to the Swiss railway system, ahead of schedule and in a lavish inauguration ceremony that included topless angels, milk floats and 600 actors, two of whom simulated sex while dressed as ibex.

It seems a shame to have missed out on that, but the next best thing was to take advantage of the interim train trips which stop halfway and allow you to get out and walk around the exhibition that's been mounted in an adjacent service tunnel.

It's a privilege that only 42,000 people will have claimed when the tunnel finally slots into the regular Swiss train timetable on December 11 and trains will no longer stop unless in an emergency. Some 160,000 Swiss citizens entered a lottery to be one of the 1000 people on the first train to go through the tunnel. Whether regular commuters will still get a sudden blast of the William Tell overture when entering the GBT is anybody's guess.

The tunnel – actually separate twin tunnels going north and south – was started in 1999 after a referendum in which 64 per cent of the population voted in favour of what was to become Switzerland's largest ever construction project. It links Erstfeld in the north with Bodio in the south and will cut passenger train times from Zurich to the southern Ticino canton to about 90 minutes.

During the 17-year construction, 28 million tonnes of rock were excavated, four million cubic metres of concrete were poured in, nine of the 1800-strong workforce died in accidents and the final cost topped out at $15 billion.

About 75 per cent of the work was done by a 10-metre diameter tunnel-boring machine, with the other 25 per cent achieved through drilling and blasting. The final breakthrough of the boring machine was shown live on Swiss television.

Before the opening of the first train tunnel through the Alps in 1882 – at the time an astonishing 15 kilometres long – traders from the Romans onwards had to trudge across the Alps via the Gotthard Pass. It was a tough, cold, painstaking business and the route was impassable during winter.

The new tunnel, said Swiss president Simeon Bavier in 1882, was: "A triumph of art and science, a monument to work and diligence. The barrier which divided nations has fallen, the Swiss Alps have been breached. Countries have moved closer to each other, the world market is open."

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Given that the latest tunnel will increase both passenger and heavy freight traffic between northern and southern Europe you've got to say that, 134 years later, Bavier is still right on the money.

More information

www.myswitzerland.com/rail  

The writer travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism. www.myswitzerland.com

See also: On board Europe's newest high-speed train

See also: 10 things you need to know about train travel in Europe

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