The world’s longest railroad tunnel moved a step closer to completion as Swiss drilling crews sliced across the final 1.8 meters (6 feet) of rock in a ceremony broadcast live on nationwide television.
Tunnel-drilling machine “Sissi” reached the final breakthrough on the Faido side, in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, around 2:17 p.m. today in the presence of Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger.
Drilling and blasting on the 57-kilometer (35-mile) tunnel linking Erstfeld in German-speaking central Switzerland and Bodio in the Italian-speaking south began in 1996. The tunnel is scheduled for completion in 2017 at an estimated cost of 18.7 billion Swiss francs ($19.7 billion). It will be the world’s longest underground rail link, beating the 53.9-kilometer Seikan Tunnel in Japan.
“With this tunnel, we are helping to build Europe’s infrastructure,” Leuenberger said at a ceremony in which the tunnel was blessed. “We are helping to shape our continent sustainably and in solidarity by pushing ahead with the transfer of traffic from our roads to the rails.”
Trains will be able to speed through the tunnel at 250 kilometers an hour, shortening the four-hour train journey between Zurich and Milan by a quarter.
Michael Reiterer, the European Commission’s ambassador to Switzerland who attended the ceremony, called the tunnel an “important connection between north and south.”
The Gotthard link through Switzerland has been one of the most vital links between northern and southern Europe since a 15-kilometer rail tunnel that took a higher route across the Alps was completed in 1881. About 200 people died during that project, including its Swiss chief, Louis Favre, and four laborers who were shot by police to end a strike.
The new tunnel is being built using a combination of blasting and 450-meter-long drilling machines. It will have two tubes, each with a single rail track and cross-linked in 176 places to provide emergency escape routes. Authorities haven’t yet decided what to do with its 129-year-old predecessor. Eight miners have died since the tunneling began.