Mont Blanc Tunnel at age 46 Sep 2011
Alex Kisiri, TunnelTalk, Europe Correspondent
As Europe is busy building and planning new trans-Alpine high-speed rail baseline connections, it is interesting to look back at the planning, design and construction of earlier road tunnel links. Alex Kisiri, the TunnelTalk Europe Correspondent, begins with a review of the Mont Blanc highway connection after 46 years of operation.
One of Europe's standout tunnels is the 11.6km-long Mont Blanc road tunnel, stretching between the Chamonix Valley in France and the Aosta Valley in Italy. In 2010 the international transportation link had a traffic log of more than 1.8 million vehicles. This is five times more than during its first year of operation in 1965.
Mont Blanc: A major Apline freight link

Mont Blanc: A major Apline freight link

In those 46 years, more than 57 million vehicles have passed through the tunnel. Cars and motorcycles account for two thirds of this figure, with lorries and heavy goods vehicles making up the rest. Despite being a hugely popular route today, the Mont Blanc project faced many obstacles, both physical and non-physical, in its early days.
The mountain was once a great barrier, taking three days to circumnavigate on foot at the beginning of the twentieth century. Today drivers can travel between France and Italy using the tunnel in just 15 minutes.
The idea of building a tunnel going through Mont Blanc goes as far back as the nineteenth century, after a series of railway tunnels were built successfully around Europe. Political relations between France and Italy, and the securing of funds, meant that the idea would take years to become a viable project. Francesco Farinet, a Member of Parliament of the Aosta Valley, promoted the building of the Mont Blanc tunnel in 1907.
Start of excavation in Italy in the 1950s

Start of excavation in Italy in the 1950s

The idea started gaining interest and in 1908 French engineer Arnold Monod, presented a design that gained much support among French and Italian Members of Parliament. French and Italian Prime Ministers, Georges Clémenceau and Giovanni Giolitti respectively, also supported Monod's design, which was outlined to politicians from both sides on a visit to Aosta. The project took a back seat when Clémenceau fell from power in the 1909 elections. In Italy, Francesco Farinet had left politics and the upcoming World Wars placed Mont Blanc at the bottom of the priority list.
In 1945, Italian engineer Count Dino Lora Totino, and Professor Zignoli of the Polytechnic University of Turin, took steps to revive the project. The Count had personally started excavating on the Italian side, even obtaining about 20 hectares of land on the French side. But in 1947, Totino's efforts were suspended, with the Italian government saying no public approval had been authorized.
In 1949, France and Italy signed an agreement for building the road connection, and four years later the two countries signed a convention for its construction. This was ratified by the Italian Parliament in 1954 and by the French Parliament in 1957.
Drill+blast tunnelling in the 1950s

Drill+blast tunnelling in the 1950s

After the convention was signed, the STMB (Société du Tunnel du Mont Blanc) was created to oversee construction of the tunnel on the French side, with Societa Italiana per il Traforo del Monte Bianco (SITMB) managing construction on the Italian side. Officially, STMB changed to Autoroutes et Tunnel du Mont Blanc (ATMB) in 1996. Excavation of the tunnel began officially in May 1959, following much resistance in France due to fears that the project would cripple the national economy.
Building the tunnel was a monumental challenge. Excavation teams often had to suspend work due to high flow of water and floods, as well as geological collapses. The excavation also caused mountain knocking sounds, a result of stress relaxation. The worst setback came on 5 April 1962, when three separate avalanches caused the deaths of three workers and injured 30 more.
By 14 August 1962, excavation was considered complete. At that point a million m3 of rock had been extracted, and about 1,200 tonne of explosives had initiated about 400,000 blasts. In 1965, President Charles de Gaulle of France and President Giuseppe Saragat of Italy declared the Mont Blanc road tunnel open to the public. The tunnel is a single tube, and has a single lane for each direction of traffic. The width of the carriageway is 7m, while the base is 8.6m wide. The height from the floor to ceiling is 6m.
The tunnel has continued receiving updates throughout its existence, both in terms of technology and safety. The most extensive programme of reconstruction and rehabilitation occurred after the devastating fire of 1999 that caused 39 deaths. The tunnel was shut for three years, and when it opened, drivers had to adhere to strict safety rules or risk being fined. These include maintaining a set speed limit of 70km/h (43.75 mph) and a distance of 150m from the car ahead. There are also 37 safe shelters, one found every 300m.
  • Aftermath of the 1999 fire

    Aftermath of the 1999 fire

  • Stricter safety rules were imposed after the fire

    Stricter safety rules were imposed after the fire

The ATMB and SITMB have created the Gruppo Europeo di Interessse Economico del Traforo del Monte Bianco (GEIE-TMB), which ensures that both countries maintain and manage the Mont Blanc tunnel in a unitary manner. Both ATMB and SITMB are semi-public companies, with equal levels of responsibility over the tunnel. The chairman for GEIE-TMB is selected every 30 months, alternating between ATMB and SITMB members.
In terms of revenue, the Mont Blanc road tunnel relies heavily on tolls. ATMB reported having a turnover figure of €152.9 million for the year 2010, a 7.9% increase in revenue from 2009.
Fire damage rebuild of Mont Blanc road link - TunnelTalk, Jun 2001
Mont Blanc Tunnel operator

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