Swiss declare Alps tamed as Gotthard rail tunnel opens

Wed Jun 1, 2016 4:18pm EDT
 
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By Michael Shields

AMSTEG, Switzerland (Reuters) - Switzerland opens the world's longest and deepest rail tunnel through the heart of the Alps on Wednesday in an engineering marvel that stands as a symbol of European unity at a time of increasing fragmentation.

The 57.1-km (35.5 mile)-long Gotthard Base Tunnel, 17 years under construction and designed to last a century, is part of a 23 billion Swiss franc infrastructure project to speed passengers and cargo by rail under the mountain chain that divides Europe's north and south.

Typically Swiss, the project that federal transport office director Peter Fueglistaler called "a masterpiece of timing, cost and policy" came in on schedule and on budget.

High-speed trains will whisk passengers in 17 minutes through a passage that took days until the first Alpine rail tunnel opened in 1882. Around 260 freight trains and 65 passenger trains will traverse the two-tube tunnel daily once final testing ends later this year.

The Swiss, as a rule rail fanatics, are throwing a party to mark the event that will draw the leaders of all its neighboring countries in a show of European solidarity.

"It is just part of the Swiss identity," Fueglistaler said of the Swiss fondness for major engineering feats. "For us, conquering the Alps is like the Dutch exploring the oceans."

The tunnel along Europe's main rail line that connects the ports of Rotterdam in the north to Genoa in the south snakes through the mountains as much as 2.3 km below daylight and through rock as hot as 46 degrees Celsius (114.8°F).

The rail route goes over the pass now in a series of loops and tunnels. The new flat route means even heavy trains will need only one locomotive rather than two or three.   Continued...

 
Swiss police officers stand beside of mock gates of the NEAT Gotthard Base Tunnel inside the event hall for the upcoming opening ceremony near the town of Erstfeld, Switzerland May 31, 2016.    REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann