Nearly seven decades since plans were first drawn up, and after 17 years of construction, this month finally saw the opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT) in Switzerland. At 57.1km, it becomes the world’s longest rail tunnel, knocking the 53.9km long Seikan Tunnel in Japan off the top spot, while the Channel Tunnel, at a mere 50.5km, is now the third longest.
The GBT is a key component of the ‘New Rail Link through the Alps’ (NRLA), a multidecadal project designed to enable high-speed rail to run all the way from northern European cities such as Rotterdam and Antwerp, via Cologne and Basel, down to Milan and Genoa, a route known as the European Rhine-Alpine Corridor. Two other tunnels are being constructed as part of the NRLA; the Lötschberg Base Tunnel (34.6km), which, although only partially-completed, has been in operation since 2007, and the Ceneri Base Tunnel (15.4km), set to open in 2020.
“The Gotthard Base Tunnel is a contribution that Switzerland is making to the integration, economic inter-dependence and wellbeing of our continent”
Dr Peter Füglistaler, Director of the Swiss Federal Office for Transport, describes the GBT as ‘a major milestone in the national strategy to switch transit freight from road to rail. This remarkable tunnel will bring marked improvements to rail traffic on Switzerland’s most important north-south transit route, making rail significantly more attractive compared with the situation up to now.’
Füglistaler hopes that once the Ceneri Base Tunnel is open and improvement works on the approach routes have been completed, journey times for passenger trains between north and south Switzerland will be cut by around 45 minutes. ‘A trip from Zürich to Milan will in future take just three hours,’ he claims.
The final bill for the Gotthard Base Tunnel comes in at CHF12.2billion (£8.5billion), slightly over half the CHF23billion (£16billion) required to finance the entire NRLA. It’s money well spent, according to Füglistaler. ‘We have built this magnificent tunnel not just in our own national interest,’ he insists, ‘but also in the interest of Europe. The Gotthard Base Tunnel is a contribution that Switzerland is making to the integration, economic inter-dependence and wellbeing of our continent.’
However, Europe’s infrastructure continues to grow, and even the GBT is facing supersedence. The Brenner Base Tunnel (BBT), part of the Scandinavia-Mediterranean Corridor from Helsinki to Valletta, will run under the eastern Alps from Innsbruck, Austria, to Fortezza, Italy, and at a mighty 64km will become the longest underground rail link in the world upon its completion in 2026.
This was published in the July 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.