The Frejus Tunnel: A brief look at its history

From 1857 to the present. Works and Safety development

The Cottian Alps extend through the Susa Valley and Maurienne, between Italy and France, with the most famous peaks being the unmistakable Monviso (3841 m) and the Aiguille de Chambeyron (3409 m). Still, not all mountains of the Cottian Alps are so renowned and frequented. On the contrary, some attract a decisively lower number of alpinists and excursionists.

Among these stands the Frejus. Its peak, standing at a height of 2,936 m, can be reached from the Italian side, by passing through a mule track and a detrital mountain side. Where the mule track starts, at approximately 1750 m, particular grey concrete buildings can be seen. On them, in writing: "Camini del Frejus" (the Frejus Chimneys). These are the vents of the Italian tract of the Frejus highway tunnel that cuts through the mountain to reach the other side, connecting Modane (France) to Bardonecchia (Italy). This long highway tunnel is not the only engineering work that cuts through this massif. In fact, more than a century before a rail tunnel had also been excavated in the Frejus, and was the longest at the time.

The Frejus Rail Tunnel: A Brief history

The first Frejus tunnel was, in fact, a railway one. It was conceived by an entrepreneur from Bardonacchia, named Giuseppe Francesco Medail, who had already presented a project to Charles Albert in 1840, which was overlooked, probably because overly ambitious for the time. The idea was passed on to Henri Maus, a Belgian engineer, who, just like Medail, died without seeing the project completed. So it passed on to Quintino Sella, an engineer and the Minister of Finance at that time. Mr Sella had to now find a way to air the tunnel. The Frejus tunnel extends for 13,636 km. No one, until then, had thought of building such a lengthy and extended tunnel. The final project was refined by Geramain Sommeiler, Sebastiano Grandis and Severino Grattoni. The first stone was laid in 1857, by King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy, after Cavour's had promoted its construction. The royal house initially funded 42 million for the project.

The project was nearly put at risk due to historical events. In 1860, in fact, the Kingdom of Sardinia, to pay back France for having helped in reunifying Italy, decided to hand Savoia to its ally. The tunnel, was not, therefore, located with both sides in Italy anymore. An agreement with the French was required, and these agreed to pay 19 million after works were completed, in a 25 year period.

They also promised a premium that would have increased as times to complete the works shortened.  The Italians, urged by the wish to win the premium, tried to speed things up as much as possible to finish soon. In fact, when the tunnel was inaugurated in 1871, the French had to pay 26 million to them, covering the final costs for the Frejus tunnel, which amounted to 70 million.

This project brought problems along with it too. In fact, works were certainly sped up, thanks to the automatic pneumatic drilling machine created by the three engineers who signed the final project, but delays and accidents still knocked at the door. Of the 4,000 workmen working at the project, in fact, 48 lost their lives while carrying out their duties (although it must be said that 18 deaths are to be connected to the cholera epidemic of 1864). The global media showed great interest in the tunnel’s excavation. The rail tunnel, in fact, opened a new passage for the London-Brindisi train that in those years travelled with difficulty along the Moncenisio Railway, built by the English, a little while before, and subsequently unused. The Frejus tunnel remained the world's longest, until 1882. That year, it handed its record to the St. Gottard Railway Line Tunnel (15 km), whose works began in 1872.
This railway tunnel was just the first Frejus tunnel to be built. In fact, a few decades later, this first project was by a second tunnel.

The Frejus Highway Tunnel

Since 1980, near the Frejus railway tunnel there's also a highway one. This tunnel also connects Bardonecchia to Modane: from when it was first inaugurated, the service that used to transport vehicles in the Frejus rail tunnel ended, as it was not needed anymore. Construction works began in 1974, almost a century from when the railway tunnel, located alongside, was first opened. The Frejus Highway Tunnel is 12,895 km long, and is managed by two different companies: In France, by SFTR, while in Italy it is managed by SITAF. In twenty years from the tunnel’s inauguration, over 20 million vehicles drove through it, being one of the main connections between Italy and France.

The future of the Frejus tunnel

The Frejus Highway Tunnel, during the last years was doubled, as a second parallel tunnel was built. Works on the Italian side began in 2012, while the French already had begun to excavate in 2009. Building the second tunnel was necessary because traffic continued to increase along the Frejus Highway, and safety needed to be improved. Many criticized the decision. Since the terrible event of 1999, in the Mont Blanc Tunnel, tunnel safety has greatly improved.

Things are very different when it comes to the Frejus railway tunnel. In fact, this construction is very old, and does not abide by many of the current safety rules. In 2005, the Italian "Safety in Railway Tunnels" (“Sicurezza delle gallerie ferroviarie”) Decree set that all single-barrelled tunnels must have an access window every 4 km where vehicles can pass. The Frejus railway tunnel does not have any window and therefore no real safety exit.  This means that next year, in 2020, 15 years since the Decree was first issued, the Frejus railway tunnel will be unlawful. That same tunnel that in the nineteenth century stood as one of the main engineering quests of the newly born Italian State.