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Gotthard Base Tunnel: the journey

Mike Chrimes

The recent opening of Switzerland’s Gotthard Base Tunnel provides another example of today’s engineers creating engineering wonders that supplant the achievements of a century ago

The new Gotthard Tunnel is set to revolutionise transport through the Alps. These modern megaprojects have been achieved with relative ease compared with the original schemes, despite their larger scale.

The original 15km long Gotthard tunnel broke through in 1880. Although not the first transalpine railway tunnel, it was the most impressive achievement. The contractors lost 12.45M francs on the job, having completed it over two years late. The principal contractor Louis Favre died of a heart attack in the tunnel in 1879. The workings were wet from the first, water to power compressed air for the drilling equipment was in short supply, and the serpentine rock was unexpectedly hard. Lining was made difficult by areas of weak rock with the consistency of flowing clay. Dust and fumes crippled workers and hookworm took a heavy toll, resulting overall in more than 310 deaths and 877 permanent disabilities.

In 1980 the 16.9km long Gotthard Road Tunnel, the longest road tunnel in the world was completed. Forming part of the A2 motorway route from Basel to Chiasso, it comprises only one bidirectional tube with two lanes. Parallel to the rail tunnel, it was built to deal with the enormous post war growth in road traffic. Road freight through Switzerland continued to grow unabated, but when a proposal was made to increase this tunnel’s capacity the Swiss population effectively revolted, and work was initially only approved for a diversionary tunnel while work to repair the existing tunnel took place. The preferred alternative was for a new railway tunnel, or rather a series of tunnels, with a view to taking freight traffic on the Rotterdam-Genoa axis off Switzerland’s roads.

The original Gottardbahn follows a winding route, the new high speed line or Alp Transit project includes the Lötschberg Base Tunnel between Bern and Valais, and the Ceneri Base Tunnel (scheduled to open in 2020) to the south. It will cut the Zürich-Milan journey time for passenger trains by one hour. Although project costs were exceeded by about 10%, it was completed ahead of schedule. The idea was first proposed in 1947 by Carl Eduard Gruner, an engineer from Basel, who had the visionary idea of a Gotthard Base Tunnel as an element in a high speed transit system. The idea was under serious consideration from the 1960s, but it was only the environmental impact of road freight traffic that created the political will to undertake such a project.

It is of interest, in the context of the arguments in the UK about High Speed 2, that it was popular support that drove the political will for this project, and it was support based on widespread understanding of the lack of capacity on the Swiss transport network. This kind of understanding can be lacking when megaprojects are considered. Perhaps this new Swiss wonder will help.

  • Mike Chrimes is an engineering historian

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