On Oct. 15, 2010, Austrian miner Ubert Bär became the first worker in the Gotthard Base Tunnel to crawl through the hole made by a boring machine and appear in the northern section of the massive project, bringing with him an image of Santa Barbara, the patron saint of miners. After years of excavation (work began in 1999), Italy and Switzerland became closer neighbours thanks to this tunnel at the foot of the historic Gotthard Pass in the Alps. Circumventing the difficulties posed by an imposing mountain was an epic enterprise.
The Gotthard Base Tunnel is the world’s deepest railway underground pass, where at some points the height of the mountain is 2,300 metres above. Despite these impressive conditions, the tunnel also hosts the longest high-speed railway line in the world: 57 kilometres that link Erstfeld to the north with Bodio to the south (both in Switzerland), reducing the travel time by train between Milan and Zurich by an hour to less than three.
The trains, which can travel up to 250 kilometres per hour, are the protagonists of this project that – once it opens to commercial traffic – will be able to receive cargo trains carrying up to 3,600 tonnes. Inauguration of the Gotthard Base Tunnel was held last June but regular train traffic will start in December. Once it is up and running, the impact it will have will be decisive on the north-south axis of European transport by linking Italy and Switzerland by means of a high-speed railway system.
The Gotthard Base Tunnel was described by Italy’s infrastructure minister as the most important infrastructure project of the Rhine-Alps corridor that will link Rotterdam with Genoa, crossing an economic area worth 16% of the European Union’s gross domestic product. It is a strategic corridor because it will move goods from the ports of Genoa and Vado Ligure to markets in northern Europe.
Gotthard Base Tunnel Project: the Longest Tunnel in the World under the Alps
All of this is made possible by a great piece of infrastructure, whose construction required the help of some of the leaders in the field. Salini Impregilo did its part between 2001 and 2013 with the construction of Bodio and Faido, the closest lots to Italy that stretch for 30 kilometres.
The entire project was done in respect of all the safety requirements. If all the shafts and access and connecting tunnels are counted, the combined length of the underground system reaches 152 kilometres. There are two multifunctional stations (Faido and Sedrun) inside of which are the emergency stops, one of which is fitted with alternate railway lines. In case of a fire or accident, a train would have to get out of the main tunnel. If this is not possible, the convoys would stop at the emergency stops.
The project, despite being ambitious in itself, belongs to a bigger plan called AlpTransit, which was approved in a referendum held by Swiss citizens in 1992. Its aim is to modernise the main railway axes that pass through the Alps. In charge of its construction was AlpTransit Gotthard Ltd, which is wholly owned by the Swiss Federal Railways (SFR). The base tunnel was first conceived in 1947 before being studied in earnest by the government in 1962. Not only was it seen as an essential piece of infrastructure to link Switzerland with Italy but also an underground passage that preserves the most beautiful mountain chain of the Swiss Alps.
According to the European Union, road traffic across the Alps doubles every eight years, threatening the environment. Such is Switzerland’s intent on protecting it that the country’s constitution requires projects of this sort to change the environment as least as possible – something that was taken seriously by the builders of the Gotthard Base Tunnel.