World’s longest and deepest rail tunnel opens in Europe

World’s longest and deepest rail tunnel opens in Europe

World’s longest and deepest rail tunnel opens in Europe

The first train enters and is about to disappear into the tunnel's North portal on the opening day of the Gotthard rail tunnel, at the North portal near Erstfeld, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 1, 2016. AP photo

The world’s longest and deepest train tunnel officially opened on June 1 in Switzerland, nearly seven decades after the initial design was conceived and 17 years after its construction started. The opening saw the attendance of many European leaders as well as prayers by a priest, an imam and a rabbi, as well as colorful dance performances. 

Switzerland’s 57-kilometre (35-mile) Gotthard Base Tunnel was constructed for 10 billion euros by a consortium, which also includes one subsidiary of Turkey’s Renaissance Construction in the country, Heitkamp Swiss. Major contractors for the project included Alpiq, Balfour Beatty and Thales, as well as Heitkamp.

The tunnel eclipses Japan’s 53.8-kilometer Seikan Tunnel as the world’s longest and bores deeper than any other tunnel, running about 2.3 kilometers (1.4 miles) underground at its maximum depth.

The project aims to cut travel times, ease roadway traffic and draw cargo from pollution-spewing lorries trucking between Europe’s north and south, according to the project’s website. The EU railway network will get a major boost from the shortcut through the Alps, notably on the route from Germany to Italy, with the opening of the tunnel.

260 freight trains, 65 passenger trains per day

When it opens for commercial services in December, the two-way tunnel will take up to 260 freight trains and 65 passenger trains per day. Journey time between Zurich and Milan will be cut by an hour thanks to trains passing through the tunnel. 

A test run by the European leaders turned into a sort of mini-summit: Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Swiss Federal President Johann Schneider-Ammann and French President Francois Hollande climbed aboard in a first-class car for a ride through the tunnel.

Merkel said it was a “wonderful feeling” to be on the train. She did note that “more than 2,000 meters of rocks” were above but that she had a “feeling of security because I believe in the security of the Swiss civil engineers,” as quoted by Associated Press. 

“The new tunnel fits into the European railway freight corridor, which links Rotterdam and Genoa,” said Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann, quoted by the Associated Press.

He added that the tunnel will boost access “to these two important ports” in the Netherlands and Italy.    
“Aside from saving time, more merchandise can be carried through the Alps,” Schneider-Ammann said.

The Gotthard Base rail tunnel is also being hailed as an environmental triumph as much as an unprecedented engineering feat across Europe. 

European Union transport commissioner Violeta Bulc last week described the new tunnel as a “godsend for Europe” which will serve as a “a vital link connecting Rotterdam [and] Antwerp with the ports of the Adriatic,” as quoted by Agence France-Presse.

According to the Swiss rail service, it took 43,800 hours of non-stop work by 125 laborers rotating in three shifts to lay the tunnel’s slab track.     

At the peak of construction, as many as 2,400 workers took part in the project. The two holes were connected in October 2010, some 11 years after the first blast to build the tunnel, which took place in the last century.