Great feats of engineering: The ‘newest and best way to Italy’

Switzerland should take a bow with the opening of the 57-kilometre Gotthard Base Tunnel

 

Despite its claim to fame at 4.5 kilometres, as the longest road tunnel in an urban area of Europe, Dublin Port’s fine tunnel is now very small beer. On Wednesday Switzerland opened the world’s longest and deepest tunnel, the 57-kilometre Gotthard Base Tunnel – an extraordinary engineering feat that is 12 times longer than Dublin’s tunnel, and passes out by three kilometres the Seikan rail tunnel in Japan, from the northern island of Hokkaido to the main island of Honshu. The latter is now in second place, ahead of the 50.5 -kilometre Channel Tunnel.

The Gotthard takes over from two previous record-holders on the same pass – the 15-kilometre Gotthard Rail Tunnel, opened in 1882 – “the newest and best way into Italy”, The Times said of it – and the 1980 Gotthard Road Tunnel. A journey that once took travellers days will now be completed in 17 minutes. Around 260 freight trains and 65 passenger trains will be able to traverse the two-tube tunnel daily when testing ends later this year, eventually moving goods currently carried by one million trucks a year. Unlike the old Gotthardbahn rail tunnel, which rises and falls through the massif in a winding route, the tunnel is on the flat, and even the biggest trains will only need one engine to pull them through.

The €11 billion tunnel was completed 70 years after first proposed, and 17 years after construction began, and was opened by Swiss president Johann Schneider-Ammann with a clatter of European heads of state who praised it as a new symbol of European unity. “Switzerland has not just built a tunnel, but opened a route to the future of Europe,” France’s François Hollande enthused.

It will revolutionise continent-wide transportation, cutting the four-hour trip between economic hubs of Zurich and Milan by an hour, and eventually linking up a seamless high-speed rail trip on the “Rhine-Alp corridor” from Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest port, to Genoa. That depends, however, on infrastructure still to be completed in Switzerland – promised for 2020 – and in both Germany and Italy where work is well behind.

Trains will run under the Gotthard Pass which connects northern to southern Switzerland and Europe, as deep as 2200 metres (Dublin Port is a mere 21 to 23 metres). The work was done by blasting through 73 kinds of rock – 28.2million tonnes of rock and soil were extracted. It was finished with Swiss efficiency on budget a year early.

Switzerland’s glory may be relatively short-lived, however: Austria’s 64-kilometre Brenner Base tunnel is set to open in 2026. And a proposed 80-kilometre underground train link connecting Helsinki in Finland and Tallin in Estonia is awaiting approval.Yet more impressive still, China says it plans to build a 123-kilometre tunnel underneath the Bohai straits to reduce journey times between the port cities of Dalian and Yantai from eight hours to 45 minutes.

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