Huge tunnel network creates new railway link through the Alps
Ben Jones, CNN ? Updated 20th February 2020
(CNN) Thousands of feet under the Swiss Alps, a new high-speed, high-capacity railway is close to completion.
At its heart is the world's longest railway tunnel -- the 35-mile-long (or 57-kilometer) Gotthard Base Tunnel.
Everything about this $11.3 billion project is on a grand scale; at their deepest point, the GBT's twin tunnels are around 8,000 feet below the Alpine peaks. More than 2,500 people worked on its construction, carving and blasting their way through almost 30 million tonnes of granite before laying almost 250 miles of steel rails and installing thousands of miles of cables for power, signaling and communications systems.
With cross passages between the main tunnels every 1,066 feet, access tunnels and shafts the total length of the tunnel system is more than 95 miles.
Excavation of the two 35-mile running tunnels was completed in 2011 and employed a combination of traditional drilling/blasting and massive tunnel boring machines with 32-foot diameter cutting faces and miles of conveyor belts to carry rock away for recycling.
Excavation on this scale generated extraordinary quantities of rock and spoil; the rock from the Gotthard tunnels alone would have filled a train of wagons stretching from Zurich to Chicago -- a distance of 4,440 miles.
The Ceneri Base Tunnel in southern Switzerland is due to open in December 2020.
he long road to build the new Gotthard rail tunnel
1999: kick-off for a mammoth Swiss project that was to last 17 years. The task was to build a new Alpine rail tunnel, the third in the Gotthard Pass region - and help bring northern and southern Europe closer together.
The work involved four huge machines, each weighing 3,000 tonnes, which began drilling in 2003. It took them seven years to blast through 73 different types of rock, displacing more than 28 million tonnes of rubble in the process. Nine workers are killed during the construction.
The Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT; German: Gotthard-Basistunnel, Italian: Galleria di base del San Gottardo, Romansh: Tunnel da basa dal Son Gottard) is a railway tunnel through the Alps in Switzerland. It opened on 1 June 2016, and full service began on 11 December 2016. With a route length of 57.09 km (35.5 mi), it is the world's longest and deepest traffic tunnel and the first flat, low-level route through the Alps. It lies at the heart of the Gotthard axis and constitutes the third tunnel connecting the cantons of Uri and Ticino, after the Gotthard Tunnel and the Gotthard Road Tunnel.
The link consists of two single-track tunnels connecting Erstfeld (Uri) with Bodio (Ticino) and passing below Sedrun (Graubunden). It is part of the New Railway Link through the Alps (NRLA) project, which also includes the Ceneri Base Tunnel further south (scheduled to open late 2020) and the Lotschberg Base Tunnel on the other main north-south axis. It is referred to as a "base tunnel" since it bypasses most of the existing Gotthard railway line, a winding mountain route opened in 1882 across the Saint-Gotthard Massif, which was operating at its capacity before the opening of the GBT. The new base tunnel establishes a direct route usable by high-speed rail and heavy freight trains.
The main purpose of the Gotthard Base Tunnel is to increase local transport capacity through the Alpine barrier, especially for freight, notably on the Rotterdam?Basel?Genoa corridor, and more specifically to shift freight volumes from trucks to freight trains. This both significantly reduces the danger of fatal road crashes involving trucks, and reduces the environmental damage caused by heavy trucks. The tunnel provides a faster connection between the canton of Ticino and the rest of Switzerland, as well as between northern and southern Europe, cutting the Basel/Zurich?Lugano?Milan journey time for passenger trains by one hour (and from Lucerne to Bellinzona by 45 minutes).
After 64 percent of Swiss voters accepted the NRLA project in a 1992 referendum, first preparatory and exploratory work began in 1996. The official start of construction began on 4 November 1999 at Amsteg. Drilling operations in the eastern tunnel were completed on 15 October 2010 in a breakthrough ceremony broadcast live on Swiss TV, and in the western tunnel on 23 March 2011. The tunnel's constructor, AlpTransit Gotthard AG, originally planned to hand over the tunnel to Swiss Federal Railways (SBB CFF FFS) in operating condition in December 2016 but, on 4 February 2014, the handover date was changed to 5 June 2016 with the start of an 850-day opening countdown calendar on the AlpTransit homepage. As of 1998, the total projected cost of the project was CHF 6.323 billion; as of December 2015, the final cost is projected as CHF 9.560 billion. Nine people died during construction.
A further eight million tonnes has been excavated from the new Ceneri Base Tunnel further south.
Deep within the tunnels, two cavernous "multi-function stations" at Sedrun and Faido allow trains to cross between the two tunnels while maintenance is taking place or in case of emergencies.
Sedrun was intended to become by far the world's deepest underground passenger station, known as Porta Alpina, with 2,600-foot-deep elevator shafts linking the platforms to the villages above, but the plan was dropped as uneconomic in 2012.
However, the GBT, which opened in 2016, is only part of the story.
First proposed as far back as 1947, a new "flat" route through the Alps was backed by a Swiss national referendum in 1992 and test drilling started a year later.
In 2020, the final piece of the jigsaw -- the shorter, but equally important Ceneri Base Tunnel, near Lugano, will finally see its first trains.
This 9.5-mile-long tunnel eliminates the remaining "mountain" section of the busiest north-south route between the economic powerhouses of northern Europe and northern Italy.
Es ist so weit: der erste Meilenstein des Ceneri-Basistunnels ist im Kasten. Der Film dokumentiert die Abgabe der Detailprojektierung (Eingabe beim Bundesamt fur Verkehr (BAV)). Lernen Sie Daniel Binzegger, Mathias Brand und Erich Knobel kennen und lassen Sie sich von Ihnen in den Ceneri-Basistunnel entfuhren.
Journey times for international travelers between Zurich and Milan will be slashed to just two and a half hours, compared with four hours via the old Gotthard route, with passenger trains traveling at up to 125 miles per hour through the tunnels.
Remarkably, by avoiding the famous spirals of the old mountain route, the GBT shortens the distance between Zurich and Milan by 25 miles. Shorter journey times meant that passenger numbers increased by 30% in the months after it opened.
"The Gotthard Base Tunnel cuts 40 minutes from the journey between Zurich or Basel and Milan, ensuring rail remains the mode of choice between Zurich and Italy," says Mark Smith, a rail travel expert better known as "The Man in Seat 61."
"Those of us who remember the old route will miss the journey 'over the top' on the spirals of the old high-altitude Gotthard line, but it remains a scenic route with great views."
Heading south, the journey remains much the same, skirting the lakes of Zurich and Zug, passing the home of the world-famous Swiss Army knives at Schwyz before sweeping along the eastern shore of Lake Luzern -- known locally as the Vierwaldstaettersee -- towards Altdorf, the home of William Tell and the northern portal of the base tunnel.
Whereas the mountain route had -- and still has -- the power to distract even the most jaded passenger, the primary sensations of the base tunnel are the sudden change of ambient sound, and a noticeable acceleration when the new section is reached. For regular travelers, heads buried in spreadsheets, answering emails or watching movies, the transit through the GBT barely registers nowadays, so routine has this engineering marvel become.
There's no sensation of being 8,000 feet below the Alpine watershed as tunnel lights flash past at 125 mph, although in the tube itself, temperatures can reach 104 F (40 C) at this depth and huge fans blow cooling air through the tunnels to maintain a more comfortable atmosphere.
Work on the Gotthard Base Tunnel was completed in 2016.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images
Twenty minutes later, the sunlight on the southern side can be dazzling as the train bursts out of the Bodio portal and into what, on some days, feels like a different world. The Italian-speaking canton of Ticino enjoys a kinder, more Mediterranean climate than its neighbors "over the hill," with palm trees and vineyards providing a stark contrast to the northern European weather and formidable granite valleys we left behind so recently.
The major beneficiaries of the new tunnel are freight companies which will gain more capacity, lower costs and shorter journey times on this key trans-European axis -- and the Alpine communities along the old line who have been blighted by the noise of heavy rail traffic for decades.
Gentler gradients now allow heavier freight trains to run unassisted through Switzerland and increase capacity from the old limit of 140-180 trains per day via the mountain route to 220-260 daily.
Eventually, this is expected to more than double the route's annual transport capacity from 20 million to around 50 million tonnes.
The Loetschberg route connects Germany and the north of Italy.
Keith Barrow, editor of Today's Railway Europe, is under no illusions about the value of the new railway.
"The GBT and Ceneri tunnels are a project of international significance," he says. "They overcome a major historical constraint on the main north-south rail axis across the Alps. The Swiss have made a big investment in smoothing the flow of freight between Europe's major economies while ensuring rail remains a competitive option for moving goods."
GBT is part of a wider project, officially known as Neue Eisenbahn Alpentransversale or New Trans-Alpine Railways, to provide flatter, high capacity rail links between Northern Europe and Italy.
As well as the GBT, a second base tunnel is also in operation further west, linking Basel, Bern and Milan. The 21.5-mile Lotschberg Base Tunnel has provided a shorter, flatter and more direct route under the Bernese Alps since 2007.
To protect its sensitive Alpine regions from increasing road traffic, and the even greater traffic expected in the future, the Swiss Federation is working to transfer freight from road to rail wherever possible.
The Lotschberg route carries a large volume of freight on trains known as the "rolling motorway," where complete articulated trucks are carried on specialist low-floor wagons between southern Germany and the north of Italy, bypassing the congested trans-Alpine motorways.
Neighboring Austria also finds itself in a strategic location between Europe's industrial giants and has embarked on a similarly ambitious program of tunnel building to liberate its Alpine valleys from heavy freight traffic. Tens of billions of dollars are being invested in base tunnels and massive upgrades of the main rail routes linking them to Germany and Italy.
For centuries, the Brenner Pass has been the primary trade route between wealthy Bavaria and northern Italy.
When the 39.7-mile, $6.6 billion tunnel system is completed in 2028, it will take the GBT's crown as the world's longest rail tunnel. It will provide a flatter, more direct route under the Tirol Alps and allow freight trains to bypass the city of Innsbruck. Journeys from Innsbruck to Bolzano in Italy will be cut from two hours to just 50 minutes.
A Swiss Federal Railways Giruno train, built for the new Gotthard services, emerges from the northern portal of the 35-mile base tunnel.
South of Vienna, the oldest and most celebrated railway across the Alps is also being bypassed. The 17-mile, $3.65bn Semmering base tunnel will create a new, faster route from the Austrian capital and central Europe to the Adriatic when it opens in 2027.
Opened between 1848 and 1854, the current mountain railway was the first to traverse the Alps and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Construction projects of this magnitude are not without their critics or difficulties, though. All these new tunnels look set to be delivered later than planned and cost significantly more than their original budgets.
All have their opponents too, whether political, environmental or from the communities affected by these massive construction projects.
Perhaps the starkest example of this is the controversial new 170-mile railway between Lyon in France and Turin in northern Italy.
The Brenner Base Tunnel will run 34 miles from Austria to Italy under the Eastern Alps.
Jan Hetfleisch / Getty Images
Brenner Pass, a journey from Italy to Austria through Brenner Pass - 4K
European Roads - DASHCAM
Brennerpass in German or Passo del Brennero in Italian is a mountain pass through the Alps which forms the border between Italy and Austria. It is one of the principal passes of the Eastern Alpine range and has the lowest altitude among Alpine passes of the area.
Dairy cattle graze in alpine pastures throughout the summer in valleys beneath the pass and on the mountains above it. At lower altitudes, farmers log pine trees, plant crops and harvest hay for winter fodder. Many of the high pastures are at an altitude of over 1,500 metres; a small number stand high in the mountains at around 2,000 metres.
The central section of Brenner Pass covers a four-lane motorway and railway tracks connecting Bozen/Bolzano in the south and Innsbruck to the north. The village of Brenner consists of an outlet shopping centre (supermarkets and stores), fruit stores, restaurants, cafes, hotels and a gas station. It has a population of 400 to 600 (as of 2011).
A journey from Innsbruck to Verona on EuroCity 89, through the scenic Brenner Pass... The video shows the train interior & exterior, the on-board catering and the superb scenery. Tickets from Munich or Innsbruck to Verona start at just €39 at http://www.bahn.de/en. For more information, see https://www.seat61.com.
At the heart of this $27.7 billion mega-project is a $9 billion, 36-mile base tunnel to replace a difficult mountain route through the Savoy Alps.
Legal challenges, political opposition and protests, occasionally violent in nature, have beset this project from the outset, particularly on the Italian side.
Civil engineering work started as far back as 2002, although tunneling did not commence until 2016 and is expected to last 10 years. If the high-speed access lines either side are completed as planned, Paris-Milan TGV journeys could eventually be cut from seven hours to just four.
Whatever the arguments for and against these mega-projects, the move towards more environmentally friendly forms of transport combined with the ever-present demands for increased efficiency and lower costs ensure that this new generation of tunnels under Alps will play a major role in the development of Europe's economy and travel industry over the coming decades.
Ben Jones is a freelance railway and travel writer, senior correspondent at The Railway Magazine and regular contributor to numerous other railway publications in the UK. Follow him on Twitter @flywheelmedia1