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Gotthard or go home: How a Swiss supertunnel can tie Europe together

Swiss Federal President Johann Schneider-Ammann, right, listens to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the opening day of the Gotthard rail tunnel in Erstfeld, Switzerland, on June 1, 2016.

Swiss Federal President Johann Schneider-Ammann, right, listens to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the opening day of the Gotthard rail tunnel in Erstfeld, Switzerland, on June 1, 2016.

PETER KLAUNZER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The already ambitious European train system took a great leap forward on Wednesday with the official opening of the Gotthard base tunnel under the Swiss Alps. The engineering tour-de-force, at 57.5 kilometres in length, is both the longest and deepest tunnel in the world and marks the start of a logistical and trade revolution between northern and southern Europe.

The new tunnel, which took $12-billion (U.S.) and 17 years to build, is the key component in the creation of a high-speed corridor that will whiz freight and passengers from as far north as Rotterdam, Europe's busiest port, all the way south through Switzerland and into northern Italy's industrial heartland.

FRANCE

GERMANY

Zurich

AUSTRIA

SWITZERLAND

ITALY

FRANCE

GERMANY

Zurich

AUSTRIA

SWITZERLAND

ITALY

FRANCE

GERMANY

Zurich

AUSTRIA

SWITZERLAND

ITALY

FRANCE

GERMANY

Zurich

AUSTRIA

SWITZERLAND

ITALY

Route of the Gotthard axis

Erstfeld

Amsteg

Sedrun

Gotthard Base Tunnel

Total length: 57 km

Faido

Bodio

AlpTransit route

Access adit

Existing railway line

Portal

Route of the Gotthard axis

Erstfeld

Amsteg

Sedrun

Gotthard Base Tunnel

Total length: 57 km

Faido

Bodio

AlpTransit route

Access adit

Existing railway line

Portal

Route of the Gotthard axis

Erstfeld

Amsteg

Sedrun

Gotthard Base Tunnel

Total length: 57 km

Faido

Bodio

AlpTransit route

Access adit

Existing railway line

Portal

Route of the Gotthard axis

Erstfeld

Amsteg

Sedrun

Gotthard Base Tunnel

Total length: 57 km

Faido

Bodio

AlpTransit route

Access adit

Existing railway line

Portal

Longitudinal geological cross section

of the Gotthard Base Tunnel

NORTH PORTAL

SOUTH PORTAL

Erstfeld

Bodio

Sedrun

Faido

Amsteg

3,000m

2,000

1,000

Longitudinal geological cross-section of the base tunnel

NORTH PORTAL

SOUTH PORTAL

Erstfeld

Bodio

Sedrun

Faido

Amsteg

3,000m

2,000

1,000

Longitudinal geological cross section

of the Gotthard Base Tunnel

NORTH PORTAL

SOUTH PORTAL

Erstfeld

Bodio

Sedrun

Faido

Amsteg

3,000m

2,000

1,000

Longitudinal geological cross section of the Gotthard Base Tunnel

NORTH PORTAL

SOUTH PORTAL

Erstfeld

Bodio

Sedrun

Faido

Amsteg

3,000m

2,000

1,000

GRAPHICS BY MURAT YUKSELIR/THE GLOBE AND MAIL SOURCE: ALPTRANSIT GOTTHARD AG

When full commercial service begins in December, the journey time between Zurich, Switzerland's commercial centre, and Milan, Italy's business capital, will drop by a full hour to two hours and 40 minutes.

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But it is the supertunnel's extra freight capacity that will make the difference. Capacity will rise to 260 freight trains a day (and 65 passenger trains) up from 180 trains in the existing, 15-km Gotthard tunnel. The 44 per cent increase means as much as 377,000 tons a day of goods and material will be able trundle between northern and southern Europe.

Some astonishing numbers about the Gotthard Base Tunnel

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Travel along the Rotterdam-to-Italy route is possible now, but the old Gotthard tunnel is tight, congested and potentially dangerous, as is the nearby Gotthard road tunnel. In 2001, a fired caused by the collision of two trucks in the narrow, two-lane road tunnel killed 11 people.

The new Gotthard tunnel comes at a delicate and crucial time in the history of the great European integration project, which is threatening to shift into reverse. The refugee crisis has seen walls and barriers erected between several European Union countries in an effort to control, and discourage, the endless influx of refugees and asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. Rising right-wing parties across the EU, such as France's Front National, want to dismantle the EU and its open-borders system. Britain may start the dismantling process on June 23, when it holds an in-out referendum on EU membership.

The new Gotthard tunnel will help to unify the EU economy and serves as a reminder that the EU countries are knitted together as trading partners even if political forces threaten to pull them apart. Ironically, it is Switzerland, a non-EU member, that is helping to bolster EU trade through the Gotthard project. Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann called the tunnel "a giant step for Switzerland but equally for our neighbours and the rest of the continent."

EU leaders on Wednesday used the Gotthard's opening to showcase their unity. The inauguration included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French Pesident François Hollande and Matteo Renzi, the Italian Prime Minister.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Swiss Federal President Johann Schneider-Ammann, French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel travel in the VIP train during the opening ceremony.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Swiss Federal President Johann Schneider-Ammann, French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel travel in the VIP train during the opening ceremony.

RUBEN SPRICH/REUTERS

After taking the inaugural run on the tunnel, Mr. Hollande urged Britons to vote to stay in the EU as he recalled the opening of the 50.5-km Eurotunnel between Britain and France in 1994. "Nobody could have imagined that one day you would be able to travel from England to France that way," he said. "Since then, we are more united that ever and I hope the British will remember that when the day comes."

French President François Hollande delivers his speech in Pollegio, Switzerland.

French President François Hollande delivers his speech in Pollegio, Switzerland.

PABLO GIANINAZZI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Gotthard tunnel was originally conceived in 1947 and finally approved in a Swiss referendum in 1998. Voters were attracted to the idea in good part for environmental reasons. If the new tunnel were built, freight could be shifted en masse from truck to train, eliminating millions of polluting truck journeys through the Alps. Financed by a tax on heavy road vehicles, a small increase in Switzerland's value-added tax (VAT) and loans, the project was overseen by AlpTransit Gotthard Ltd., a subsidiary of Swiss Federal Railways.

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Smoke billows after the first blasting operation for the tunnel on Nov. 4, 1999. SIGI TISCHLER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The tunnel runs from Erstfeld in central Switzerland south to Bodio, in the Italian-speaking part of the country. Because the tunnel, unlike the old Gotthard tunnel, is flat and does not bend, trains can travel through it at 250 kilometres an hour. The numbers are astounding. At one point, the tunnel is 2.3 km below the top of the mountain peaks. The total length of the Gotthard system is actually 151.8 km, because the main tunnel is twinned and includes numerous air shafts, passageways and escape routes in case of fire.

The amount of rock removed is equivalent to the volume of stone of five Egyptian pyramids About 3,200 km of copper cable went into the project. Some 2,600 employees worked around the clock on the tunnel which, with typical Swiss efficiency, was completed about a year ahead of schedule. During the height of construction, between 2002 and 2012, nine workers lost their lives in the tunnel.

One company that will be happy with the Gotthard's completion is Canada's Bombardier, whose train division is based in Berlin and which counts itself as one of the world's top three train makers. Italy's new Frecciarossa trains, which were engineered by Bombardier, are the first high-speed trains that were designed to used throughout Western Europe, where rail voltages vary by country.

As the high-speed train system expands in Europe through new tunnels and crossings, Bombardier hopes that its trains will become more popular because a flick of a switch is all that's required to go from one country's voltage to another.


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