Clad in an orange hardhat and a bright green vest with light-reflecting stripes, I’m standing by the shiny new tracks of the Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland — the longest railroad tunnel in the world. It opened in June and started service on 11 December, and it will connect the country’s northern and southern halves underneath the Alps’ Saint Gotthard mountain range — allowing the high-speed passenger trains to travel up to 155mph.
In fact, the Alps are right above me — over 6000 feet of hard rocky mountain core with snow-topped peaks disappearing into the sky. Straight in front of me are miles of shimmering rails resting on thousands of concrete "sleepers" — the rectangular blocks that hold up the tracks. “When the construction team laid down the last sleeper, they had a celebration,” our guide Aloise Bissig from the tunnel crew tells us in German, and our translator Eva Plank translates. “Every sleeper had to be hand-polished because nothing but a human hand was sensitive enough to do the job right.”
This 35.5-mile-long tunnel promises to revolutionise European transport
This 35.5-mile-long tunnel promises to revolutionise European freight transport, because it will link the two largest ports in Europe: Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Genoa in Italy. Alpine highways will see about a million less trucks a year.
Currently, when trains zigzag and pass through the gorges and series of smaller tunnels, they inevitably climb up and down the slopes, burning extra electricity. Pulling trains up the hills requires a couple of locomotives and a lot of energy, explains Maurus Lauber, CEO of the Swiss Travel System.
But the Gotthard Tunnel runs through the mountains straight rather than rising and falling, or “flat-rail” as engineers call it. Eliminating the need to pull trains uphill and reduces the energy consumption.
The entire tunnel, like many things Swiss, is an epitome of doing things right.
Switzerland is a diverse nation of 26 cantons, or states, comprised of people speaking German, French, Italian, and Romansh — a Latin language that originated from the Roman Empire. In a time rife with political division worldwide, Switzerland is an entire country that excels at doing things right — and whose disparate populations come together to get them done.
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Gallery images courtesy Lina Zeldovich
The tunnel isn’t just an example of national teamwork. It’s an example of a massive infrastructural undertaking.
The tunnel’s long path was carved through very hard rock — 73 different types of rock, which are now displayed at the Swiss Museum of Transport, according to director Martin Bütikofer.
So is a huge metal wheel that once tore through those rocks. The four tunnel boring machines, or TBMs, which drilled the sub-mountainous passage concurrently from four different points, had to meet perfectly head-on, which required insanely precise measurements. All four TBMs met exactly on target, Bissig tells me, beaming with pride.
The entire tunnel, like many things Swiss, is an epitome of doing things right
The machines, each about a third of a mile in length, drilled through rocks with a 31-foot-diameter wheel, recycled the gravel for the concrete mix for construction, and plastered the resulting walls with steel sheets, advancing about 30 feet per day.
Besides shortening travel distances, the tunnel might serve as an even greater unifying cultural force.
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In Switzerland, German, French and Italian are all considered official languages, and just about every poster, booklet or brochure is produced in all three. But despite not having one common language, Swiss citizens have a strong and united national identity.
“What defines the Swiss is that French-speaking people don't want to be French, the German-speaking people don't want to be German, and people in Ticino, the Italian part, don't want to be thought of as Italian,” Tabea Mandour, Gotthard Project media relation manager tells me. “We all think of ourselves as Swiss.”
“We decide on things together. That’s what makes Swiss people Swiss people"
Mandour is based in Zurich and her primary language is German, but Veronica Lafranchi of Ticino Turismo, the canton’s official tourism agency, echoes her on the other side of the Alps. “I speak Italian, but I’m Swiss!”
Andreas Banholzer, at tourism agency Office du Tourisme du Canton de Vaud in the Geneva area (the French part) explains that what makes Switzerland a nation is that all citizens have a say in what happens in the country — including the building of the tunnel, which they voted for way back in 1992. “We decide on things together,” Banholzer says. “That’s what makes Swiss people Swiss people.”
Lauber says that the country’s citizens learned to work together and stand up for each a long time ago.
When the three original cantons, Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden, formed Switzerland in 1291 during a meeting on a meadow near Lake Lucern, they agreed to unite against the Habsburg dynasty, which was trying to bring this Alpine region under its rule. The Alps’ rough landscape, scarce resources and unpredictable weather taught people to be supportive, accurate and inventive, qualities that are still highly valued today.
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Also valued is the engineering prowess necessary to connect many parts of this mountainous country together.
Peter Fuglistaler, director of the Swiss Federal Office of Transport, notes that the Swiss aren't very emotional people, but unveiling the world's longest train tunnel does get them excited.
“The National Railway Company is part of the Swiss identity,” he explains. “We are really proud of this tunnel, it’s a symbol of our engineering and independence.”
And with behemoth infrastructure projects like this one, that are often phenomenally expensive, complex and slow-moving, unity and cooperation are crucial in seeing construction through to completion.
“We thought of these machines as worms eating through the mountains,” says Hansuedi Herger, a native of the Uri canton, under which some of the drilling took place. Herger is excited that Uri, which is in the German part, will now be much closer to Italy — a 30 minute-ride instead of 1.5 hours. “Altdorf, the capital of Uri, and Bellinzona, the capital of Ticino, will be like sister cities,” he says.
Historically, Switzerland, which Mandour describes in German as “die Schweiz ist eine Willensnation,” meaning “a country united by people’s will,” felt split in two by the Saint Gotthard mountain range, the range that the tunnel project plows through.
Crossing the range was a strenuous and often dangerous ordeal, possible only during warm seasons when snowstorms and avalanches abated. Travellers, as well as horses loaded with trading goods, transcended the Gotthard via the Schöllenen Gorge, a deep steep-sided canyon filled with the raging river Reuss. To cross the Reuss, the caravans walked over a bridge forged in a spot seemingly impossible to build at — because of how steep and deep the canyon was. The legend states that this astonishing piece of medieval engineering couldn't possibly be accomplished by humans, and therefore must’ve been done by a devil, and appropriately named The Devil’s Bridge.
The Swiss bridged the Saint Gotthard’s divide by railroad tracks in 1882 and by a car tunnel in 1980, but the increase in air pollution prompted the 1992 vote to build the new train tunnel.
Now the entire county is abuzz with anticipation of the exciting changes in all areas of life.
The popular 4.5-hour ride between Zurich and Milan will be shortened by about 60 minutes, Mandour says. Ticino residents expect a tourist influx, says Lafranchi. Plus, they’re considering commuting to the more economically developed German part for work. Even the French side, which the tunnel doesn't connect to directly, will likely see a tourism boost too, Banholzer says.
The country feels that it has transcended a centuries long cultural and transportation chasm. “There were always the Alps in between,” Lauber says, “but with the Gotthard tunnel, it will be very easy and fast.” For the travellers who want to see the Alps’ full beauty, the older more scenic route will remain in operation.
Now more cargo trains will deliver the goods faster and with less energy because they will no longer have to climb uphill. That’s what Fuglistaler says is Switzerland’s gift to the rest of Europe.
“We’re not part of the European Union politically, but we did something for Europe that shows we are part of Europe,” Fuglistaler says. It is indeed a very Swiss gift in its nature: It was the right thing to do, and the country did it together. And, of course, it will run like a Swiss clock.
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