Gotthard Base Tunnel quickens train travel through Swiss Alps

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The tunnel connects the towns of Erstfeld and Bodio, traveling more than 7,500 feet below ground within the Saint-Gotthard Massif mountain range in the Alps.
The tunnel connects the towns of Erstfeld and Bodio, traveling more than 7,500 feet below ground within the Saint-Gotthard Massif mountain range in the Alps.
Felicity Long
Felicity Long

What can we say about Switzerland’s beautiful mountains that hasn’t been said already? They are picturesque, scenic, awe-inspiring — and also a pain in the neck to get around, especially for travelers trying to get from the north to the south of the country, or vice versa, in a hurry.

With this in mind, Swiss tourism entities are giddy about the opening of the long-awaited Gotthard Base Tunnel, which was scheduled to have its formal opening June 1 and will begin operating passenger service in December.

The dual-track tunnel, which broke ground 17 years ago, has the distinction of being the world’s longest and deepest train tunnel. It measures about 35 miles long and is more than 7,500 feet below ground within the Saint-Gotthard Massif mountain range in the Alps.

The project is part of a larger New Railway Link through the Alps (NRLA) project that also includes the Ceneri Base Tunnel, set to open in 2019. The third track, the Lotschberg Base Tunnel, opened in 2007.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of the NRLA’s engineering feat and what it will mean for train travel in Switzerland.

The Gotthard route alone will allow passengers to make the journey through the Alps in 17 minutes, linking not only the cities in the north and south of the destination, but also neighboring countries.

“The new Gotthard Base Tunnel is much more than a milestone from a technical, engineering perspective,” said Alex Herrmann, director of North America Switzerland Tourism.

“It will bring the German- and Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland closer together, two diverse cultural areas. For visitors to Switzerland it’s now easier and more convenient to combine glaciers with palm trees.”

Once both tunnels are open, train travel from Zurich to Milan, for example, which now takes more than four hours, will take less than three hours.

The Gotthard Base Tunnel is expected to operate up to 65 passenger trains and 260 freight trains a day.

For the claustrophobic among us, it’s reassuring to know that there are emergency evacuation points along the route, and construction was accomplished using the latest in environmental techniques.

Of course, all this didn’t come cheap. In all, the tunnel will cost about $12 billion, and — this is Switzerland, after all — it’s coming in on budget and on time.

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