The Gotthard Base Tunnel, two parallel tubes of over 35 miles each through the Swiss Alps, is a ridiculously ambitious undertaking, one that has taken 14 years so far and still has a few left to go before it'll be operational. But the Swiss have achieved a major milestone today: One of the tunnels broke through, cementing the Gotthard's place as the world's longest tunnel.
Drilling of the tunnel began way back in 1996 (remember those heady days--the drillers might have been humming along to Joan Osborne's breakthrough, "One of Us"), and has encountered its fair share of difficulties in the succeeding decade and a half. From the Sedrun (a layer of soft rock near the middle) to a near-disaster during the test phase that unleashed a torrent of water and sand, the drilling has not been particularly easy. One of the main drills was even trapped by falling sand, held incapable of drilling for a whopping six months at one point.
The tunnel was drilled from the middle out--an 800-meter tunnel was drilled vertically into the middle of the prospective track, and then two drills did their work in opposite directions. Well, really, that's only half of the total work: The tunnel is actually two single-track, parallel tunnels, connected by smaller spurs every thousand feet or so. The east-most tunnel finally broke through the last few meters of rock today, completing the drilling phase and officially making the Gotthard the world's longest tunnel. (The western tunnel will be completed around April of 2011.)
When completed, probably in 2016 or 2017 (the project is actually ahead of schedule at the moment), the Gotthard will connect southern Germany to northern Italy. And this groundbreaking (literally!) effort is only the first of three similarly massive tunnel projects: The others will connect Lyon, France to Turin, Italy, and Austria to Italy, provided they can make it unscathed through the European Union's budget cuts.
The tunnel was made for both convenience and environmental reasons. Though the Gotthard will only cut about an hour off the trip, compared to the above-ground routes, it allows freight shipping in much higher quantities to be shipped safely. Trains and heavy trucks do significant ecological damage to the Alps, both in erosion and in destruction of plant and animal habitats, and the tunnel should help mitigate that. And, of course, passenger trains will relieve some of the traffic congestion on the mountain roads.
The drilling of the tunnel itself has actually yielded some encouraging green possibilities as well--massive amounts of rock (enough to fill 13 Empire State Buildings) were removed from the mountains, and are being used to restore lakes that were previously dredged for gravel. Some of the warm water which runs through the Alps (and which was previously difficult to obtain) will be diverted for sustainable fish farms.
Man. This must have been a hard sell.
"I wanna build a 35 mile tunnel through the Alps."
"Fish and stones."
"And how long will this take?"
"About two decades, and some change."
"Who do I make the check out to?"
It is a really something. 35 miles under the mountain. I hope the mountain doesn't collapse, how the vibration forces will be be drained out of the land, so that it doesn't feel any earthquake like sensation.
is it like a English Canal.
Is Switzerland just trying to remove any need for anyone to even cross its borders?
I was a bit thrown off by the mention of passenger trains. I don't think they were planning to add passenger trains in the tunnels so i'm guessing that comment was alluding to the trains currently existing above ground or the possibility of new trains being built to further decrease traffic.
@SJak: The project got funding, because it is an aim put into the Swiss constitution by people's vote to significantly reduce the amount of goods which are transported through Switzerland on trucks (see also: "After 64 percent of Swiss voters accepted the AlpTransit project in a 1992 referendum, construction of the tunnel began in 1996." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gotthard_Base_Tunnel). Instead, these goods (and, actually, also the trucks carrying them) are put onto freight waggons and are transported through Switzerland by train, thereby reducing road traffic and environmental impact at the same time.
@friedguy: I don't understand your comment. Both in the north (German-speaking part of Switzerland) and in the south (Italian-speaking part of Switzerland) trains will travel through Swiss territories for long stretches. Thus, "the Gotthard will connect southern Germany to northern Italy." should really not be taken too literally: http://www.aus-sicht.ch/downloads/alptransit_sedrun.kml
@polymath87: The new tunnels will be used both by passenger and by freight trains. The coordination between the two is actually a major challenge, since passenger trains will travel at around 160km/h and freight trains aren't allowed to go faster than 120km/h. I recently read, that passenger trains are actually slowed down in order to increase the capacity of the tunnels (higher speed would necessitate more separation between trains).
Note that there already is a train and a car tunnel through Gotthard. The new tunnel is not the only one and will not replace the way 'over the mountain'.
Btw, project website is: http://www.neat.ch/en
@SJak - fish and stones. That was funny.
Yeah 35 miles - I would imagine we've learned an incredible amount on how to bore big, long holes through the earth. I'd love to see more tunneling in order to get from a to b faster with less pollution. The amount of earth removed too is pretty incredible. The fact that the trains will use this tunnel is also amazing. Trains are an outstanding means for transporting goods. The US should rely more on trains than it does today. Just expensive to build.
@dontbother - thanks for that great information. Going to read more now.
I read: "The others will connect Lyon, France to Turin, Italy, and Austria to Italy..."
"The others will connect Lyon, France to Turin, Italy, and AUSTRALIA to Italy..."
If only! :)
Now *that* would be an impressive tunnel!
2 Decades to build, 45 minutes to go through.