SWITZERLAND has just opened the longest train tunnel in the world - the Gotthard Base Tunnel, adding another major attraction to the country. The 57 kilometre-long tunnel reaches a depth of up to 2,300 metres below the Gotthard massif making it the deepest.
The tunnel brings Switzerland's neighbouring countries, regions and cities north and south of the picturesque Alps mountains closer together. Travel by train will now be quicker, easier and more convenient.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern all came to southern Switzerland to join Swiss Federal President Johann N Schneider-Ammann on June 1 to attend an opening ceremony featuring dancers, acrobats, singers and musicians celebrating Alpine culture and history.
The first blasting in the historic heartland of Switzerland started 17 years ago for the massive project to build the longest train tunnel in the world. June 1 this year saw the festive opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel - adding a further pioneering attraction to the world's densest public transport network.
This flagship project for efficient and sustainable transportation on the north-south axis will permit high-speed travel through the Alps in just 17 minutes. The new flat track route will not only cut travel time through the Gotthard, but also facilitate transit travel for longer and heavier trains. Swiss Travel System tickets are available worldwide.
Significantly, after 17 years of challenging and hard building work, constructor AlpTransit Gotthard Ltd will hand over the completed tunnel to the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) on time and on budget.
With this, Switzerland's internationally acclaimed public transport system - already the densest in the world - has perfected another pioneering first. In addition, Switzerland's strategic location at the crossroads of the continent makes it a highly important hub for European goods traffic.
The Gotthard Base Tunnel is the centre piece of the AlpTransit project (also known as the New Rail Link through the Alps, or NRLA) approved by the Swiss electorate in 1992. The purpose of the NRLA is to improve the public transport network and to shift transalpine freight traffic from road to rail. The low-level link through the Alps enhances the attractiveness of transalpine freight traffic and transport capacity. It will also have a significant impact on passenger transport, as it brings time savings and supports the broader objectives of Swiss transport policy.
Then there is the shift of freight traffic from road to rail as the majority of freight traffic through the Swiss Alps is transported by rail. With a rail share of 63.4 per cent (according to a 2012 report), Switzerland is ahead of any other country and just under 60 per cent passes through the Gotthard. The flat, low-level route through the tunnel will be beneficial to freight traffic in a number of ways. It allows the transit of longer, heavier trains with fewer locomotives and shorter travel time.
It also increases transport capacity, with up to 260 freight trains scheduled to pass through the Gotthard Base Tunnel every day. The historic Gotthard railway line, by contrast, permits a maximum of only 180.
DISCOVERING SWITZERLAND'S DELIGHTS
The Gotthard Base Tunnel enters regular commercial operation on Dec 11, 2016. The shorter travel times will bring neighbouring countries, regions and cities closer together. The dual track tunnel will enable passengers from near and far to spend more time discovering the many delights of Switzerland north and south of the Gotthard.
Before the world's longest train tunnel officially enters into service, the record-breaking construction will be more accessible than ever, but only for a limited period. From Aug 2, passengers may descend into the once-in-a-century construction on exclusive tunnel rides with disembarkation in the depths of the mountain included. The special "Gottardino" train only runs until Nov 27 this year and the number of tickets is limited.
A special stop will be made at the multifunction station in Sedrun. Here, 800 metres below the surface, a tour will vividly demonstrate the dimensions of the gigantic tunnel system. But later, from Dec 11, once trains are travelling through the Gotthard Base Tunnel at high speed, a stop in the middle of the tunnel will no longer be possible.
Thanks to the new north-south connection, regions and neighbouring countries on both sides of the Gotthard Tunnel will move closer together. From the end of 2016, passengers will cross the Alps in the new tunnel in only 20 minutes and reach their destination faster than ever.
The new Gotthard Base Tunnel will bring people and products from north and south closer together in a more rapid and reliable way. Up to 2,600 workers from many countries have made their contribution to this pioneering project.
At the end of this year, the tunnel will be opened to scheduled passenger traffic. Travel time between the German-speaking and Italian-speaking regions of Switzerland will be cut considerably, therefore bringing closer together neighbouring Germany in the north and Italy to the south. For instance, the journey time between Zurich and Milan will be cut by an hour.
The entry into operation of the Gotthard Base Tunnel is not only on course - it is also ahead of schedule. The opening will take place one year earlier than originally planned. Until June 2016, countless trial runs put this pioneering project through its paces with test trains speeding through the mountain massif at up to 275 kms an hour. This phase ended with the official inauguration ceremony on June 1, 2016. The SBB is now carrying out full trial operations for a further six months.
When the longest train tunnel in the world opens to the travelling public on Dec 11, 2016, passengers will be able to spend more time at their destinations south and north of the Alps.
Train travel on the Gotthard route is nothing new. The original line - still in operation today and popular for its panoramic views - dates back to 1882, when rail travel was still in its relative infancy and Switzerland was experiencing the advent of tourism. That route climbs from an altitude of 470 to 1,100 metres, across no fewer than 205 bridges and through a special system of tunnels as it masters the Gotthard massif.
An eternal attraction for countless tourists is the beautiful Baroque church of Wassen in the narrow Uri Valley, which can be seen spectacularly from different angles as the train travels between tight loop tunnels.
The good news for classic railway enthusiasts is that the existing Gotthard route will continue to operate parallel to the new Gotthard Base Tunnel. Trains will still ply their panoramic route over the countless bridges and through seven loop tunnels.
The new state-of-the-art Gotthard Base Tunnel will serve to further enhance Switzerland's international acclaim as a public transport paradise, renowned for its railway engineering and operational excellence.