Almost twenty years since the first blast in the main shaft heralded the beginning of construction, the world’s longest and deepest railway tunnel has opened in Switzerland. The new 57km (35-mile) twin-bore Gotthard base tunnel provides a rail link at maximum speeds of up to 250 kilometres per hours, and will boost both passenger and freight travel in Europe. A truly remarkable project, with speeds made possible by the straight route with no tight curves and no level crossings on the overground sections. The capacity increase will be significant, from December 2016, up to 210 freight trains will pass through the tunnel per-day, joined by 52 passenger trains. The boost to freight will help reduce the loads delivered by heavy lorries that occupy the narrow roads snaking through the mountains.
In a ceremony attended by a host of European leaders, they reflected on the challenges of construction, the total cost of which had to be approved by a referendum of the Swiss people in 1992, is 9.8 billion Swiss francs, or 10.3 billion US dollars. Whilst nine people lost their lives while constructing the Gotthard Base Tunnel.
During the construction of the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the tunnellers had to bore through a wide variety of different rock strata, from hard granite to crumbly sedimentary rock. Tunnel boring machines carried out 80 per cent of the work in the main tunnels and conventional blasting methods were used for the remaining 20 per cent. A total of 28.2 million tonnes of excavated material was removed from the tunnel. In order to save time and money, the tunnellers worked on different sections of the tunnel at the same time.
Workers, materials and machinery were transported to the construction sites in the mountain via access galleries and shafts. With rock cover up to 2,300 metres in depth, the Gotthard Base Tunnel is the deepest rail tunnel in the world. The temperature inside the mountain reached as high as 50 degrees Celsius.
The level rail route through the Gotthard brings major benefits for freight traffic. It allows for longer, heavier trains, fewer locomotives and shorter journey times. The efficiency and reliability of rail freight traffic will increase, making it more competitive. In addition, the transport capacity of the route will increase. As many as 260 freight trains will be able to pass through the Gotthard Base Tunnel every day. On the historic mountain route, the maximum number was 180. In future, freight trains travelling through the Swiss Alps will no longer require an additional bank engine, which elim - inates the need for time-consuming shunting. This means that the tunnel will be able to absorb the expected increase in the volume of goods being transported on the northsouth route.
More than 20 million people in the catchment area between southern Germany and northern Italy will benefit from the Gotthard Base Tunnel. Thanks to the level route, train connections will be faster, more reliable and more punctual. Passenger trains will travel every half hour on the north-south axis. Passenger trains generally travel through the tunnel at a speed of up to 200 km/h. In future, top speeds of up to 250 km/h are possible. The reduction in journey times will gradually become noticeable from 2016 onwards. Once work on the entire length of the Gotthard axis (incl. Cen - eri Base Tunnel) has been completed, the journey between Zurich and Lugano will be around 45 minutes shorter.
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