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World Tunnelling Congress: The Swiss Role

Switzerland’s landscape has necessitated extensive use of tunnels and as a result has much expertise to offer countries looking to expand their infrastructure and urban facilities under ground. Diarmaid Fleming reports.

Building underground is the future of sustainable development, the Swiss transport and environment minister told delegates at the World Tunnelling Congress in Geneva last week.

Doris Leuthard used her opening speech to outline how tunnelling had been key to her nation’s development, and paid tribute to civil engineers.

With around 1,800 delegates from 63 countries, the event is one of the largest gatherings in the civil engineering world. It took place last week against a backdrop of a world boom in tunnelling, notably in emerging economies and the Middle East.

“Tunnel engineers are proud people. They are also pioneers. Tunnel engineers are among the last adventurers of the modern world of professionals,” said Leuthard.

“Today tunnel engineers are again making history by constructing the longest railway tunnel in the world. The new rail link through the alps (NRLA) at the Gotthard is further proof of their ability and skill - a monumental structure is coming into existence.”

She added that in a globalised world, tunnelling helped Switzerland play its role as the transport infrastructure “crossroads of Europe”.

Tunnelling remains a key element in the country’s infrastructure development.

Leuthard said the number of road tunnels was due to increase from 228 to 274 over the next few years, while public opposition to power lines meant they had to go underground.

“Making use of the earth beneath us will become increasingly important in terms of transport and energy infrastructure,” she said.

The new rail link through the alps at the Gotthard is further proof of their ability and skill - a monumental structure is coming into existence

Doris Leuthard, Swiss transport and environment minister

Warm tributes were paid in the opening speeches to English tunnelling legend Sir Alan Muir Wood, who died in 2009 and who was a founder, first president and honorary life president of the International Tunnelling Association, which organises the World Tunnelling Congress.

Delivering a keynote lecture in his honour, Richard J Robbins - former head of the Robbins Company - said Muir Wood was respected as an innovative engineer who worked from conservative principles but was one of the greats of the profession.


Gotthard: Rail link through Alps

“He was one of the world’s leading civil engineers,” he said.

In a paper outlining the development of mechanised tunnelling, in which the firm founded by his father has played a leading part, Robbins said the spirit of innovation may be best fostered today in new markets.

“Emerging markets may now provide the best working environment for innovation - and a less litigious atmosphere,” said Robbins.  

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