After nearly 2 decades of construction work, the Gotthard Tunnel, the world’s longest and deepest rail tunnel opened in Switzerland earlier this month.

The tunnel is expected to revolutionise travel between northern and southern Europe by providing a high speed rail link underneath the Swiss Alps, moving freight traffic off the road and onto the rails. It is estimated that more than a million lorry loads of freight will move from road to rail.

Whilst the tunnels have been officially opened scheduled services will not begin until December 2016 when up to 265 freight trains and 65 passenger trains a day are expected to run.

Older tunnels previously snaked their way up through the mountains, but the new one runs flat and straight from Zurich in the north to Lugano in the south, meaning travel will be much faster and safer. Trains will travel at 250km /h and the tunnel is expected to reduce the journey time between Zurich and Lugano by approximately 45 minutes.

Whilst it has taken 17 years to complete the tunnels, plans for their construction were first drawn up in 1947 by transport planner Carl Eduard Gruner. However, it would be many decades until the project finally got to go ahead following a referendum in 1992. Proposals from environmental groups to move all freight travelling through Switzerland from road to rail received backing in 1994 which gave the project additional momentum.

The geology challenges in the project were huge, with more than 73 different types of rock being encountered along the way; some as ‘soft as butter’ and others as hard as granite.

The facts & figures of the Gotthard Tunnel

  • The tunnel is 57.5 km, long and in some places is 2.3 km below ground
  • 2600 people have spent 17 years working on the project
  • The tunnel has cost $12,599m (about £8.2bn)
  • The tunnel boring machine was as long as four football fields laid end to end
  • 28.2 million tonnes of rock were excavated. Much of this rock was reused in the concrete in the construction and what wasn’t was used for landscaping of the site or as fill for dams
  • 4,000,000 cubic metres of concrete were used
  • 380,000 sleepers were laid
  • The track took more than 3 years to lay with work continuing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
  • When the shafts, cross passages, access tunnels and the 2 main tunnels tubes are added together the total length is 152km
  • 3200km of copper cable were used

Like any major feat of engineering the tunnel has taken huge amounts of manpower and expertise to complete the project as well as time and money, and it hasn’t been without costs in other areas. Nine workers died in accidents over the 17 years of construction and in a touching tribute those workers are commemorated by a plaque at the northern end of the tunnel.

Related links:
The Opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel
BBC News: Gotthard tunnel opening

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