The Gotthard Base rail tunnel has taken a further step towards completion as the last few inches of rock are dug from under the Swiss Alps.
Swiss voters, who are footing the £7bn tunnel, approved its construction during a series of referendums in 1981, but will have to wait until 2017 before it is finally completed.
The 57-kilometre Gotthard Base rail tunnel, which is part of wider government project to shift goods from roads to rails, is being hailed as an environmental triumph as much as an unprecedented engineering feat, amid concerns that that heavy goods vehicles were destroying Switzerland’s Alpine landscape.
Some 1.2 million trucks currently thunder through Switzerland’s countryside every year, harming rare plants and animals while adding to the erosion of the Alps.
With their beloved mountains crumbling, the Swiss decided that instead of simply stopping foreign trucks from passing through the country, they would put their tunnel-building expertise to good use by completing a plan first conceived more than 60 years ago.
When it is opened for traffic in seven years’ time, the Gotthard Base Tunnel will supplant Japan’s 54km Seikan Tunnel as the world’s longest – excluding aqueducts – and allow millions more tons of goods to be transported quickly through the Alps by rail.
A further £10bn is being spent on a series of shorter tunnels and high-speed rail links that will ultimately allow trains from Germany to continue on through to Italy at speeds of up to 249kmph, making rail journeys increasingly economically competitive.
For European transport ministers, who will be watching the breakthrough ceremony live from a meeting in Luxembourg, the project represents the first of a series of major rail tunnels meant to take the strain off congested Alpine road links.
A second would connect Lyon, France, to Turin in Italy, while a third would largely replace the Brenner road tunnel between Austria and Italy – currently one of the main transport arteries through the Alps.
Those projects are still a long way from completion and could yet be derailed by spending cuts.