After 17 years in construction the trans-Alpine Gotthard Baseline Tunnel – the world’s longest rail tunnel at 57km long – is opened amid a fanfare of fireworks and emotional celebrations. Prior to the special ceremony on Wednesday (1 June), special tribute was paid to the nine underground workers – out of a total 2,600 who contributed to the construction – who lost their lives participating in one of the greatest engineering endeavours in human history.
Fireworks greeted the first of several special trains running under the Alps carrying the 1,000 people who applied successfully for tickets to take part in the historic event. More than 160,000 had applied.
Among those taking part in the celebrations, and on board the very first train, were Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Built at cost to Swiss taxpayers, who continued to support the project financially through a series of binding referendums, the US$12 billion link is completed on schedule and on budget. The project was managed by AlpTransit Gotthard Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of Swiss Federal Railways (SFR).
Reaching cover of up to 2,300m under the Swiss Alps, the Gotthard Tunnel now becomes the world’s deepest tunnel as well as longest rail tunnel, eclipsing the 53.9km Seikan Tunnel in northern Japan and the 50.5km Channel Tunnel between the UK and France into second and third places respectively.
|Table 1. Key Gotthard Baseline Tunnel facts|
|Length||57km (longest rail tunnel in the world)|
|Journey time||20 minutes|
|Total length of all tunnels||152km|
|Construction time||17 years|
|Excavated material||28.2 million tonne|
|Total cost||CHF12.2 billion
(approx. US$12 billion)
|Tunnel capacity||260 freight trains/hr ;
65 passenger trains/hr
|Official opening||11 December 2016|
|Maximum train speeds||250km/hr (passenger);
Once the Gotthard link opens for full commercial operations later this year, passenger trains will cover the 57km distance between Erstfeld in the north and Bodio in the south in just under 20 minutes, at speeds of up to 250km/h. Journey time between Zurich and Milan will be cut by an hour. At peak capacity up to 260 freight trains and 65 passenger trains will use the tunnel each day.
The project was the brainchild of Carl Eduard Gruner, an engineer and urban planner from Basel who in 1947 sketched the visionary idea of a Gotthard Base Tunnel as an element of a rapid transit system. In 1963, the Swiss Federal Government established a committee for a 'Railway Tunnel through the Alps' which evaluated various base-tunnel solutions and in 1970 recommended construction of a Gotthard base tunnel from Erstfeld to Biasca.
In 1971, the Swiss Federal Council assigned to Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) the task of elaborating the construction project for the Gotthard base route Erstfeld-Biasca to allow rapid implementation of construction work. In 1983 however, the Swiss Federal Council concluded in a report that a new rail link through the Alps was “not urgent.” By 1989 the plan had been revived, and on October 4, 1993 a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the Piora exploratory bore system which would determine the position, extent and geological/hydrogeological characteristics of the Piora syncline with the purpose of identifying the most favourable route geotechnically for the Gotthard Base Tunnel.
On April 12, 1995, The Swiss Federal Council accepted SBB's proposals for the Gotthard Base Tunnel route between Erstfeld and Bodio and the overground section between Bodio and Giustizia. The future tunnel system for the Gotthard Base Tunnel was also decided: two single-track railway tunnels connected by 180 cross passages plus two multifunction stations, at Sedrun and Faido, whose purpose includes allowing trains to change tracks or make emergency stops if required.
On February 4, 1999, the first blast was carried out for sinking the 800m deep main shaft to provide access to the tunnel-level construction site at Sedrun; and on November 4 the first blasts were performed for driving the 1.8km-long access adit at Amsteg, representing the official start of construction of the Gotthard Base Tunnel north of the Alps. On 10 July 2000, the first blast at Bodio represented the official start of construction at the southern end of the alignment.
Details of all the major project challenges, breakthroughs and milestones are can be found in the TunnelTalk references below.