ERSTFELD (Switzerland) • Switzerland yesterday opened the world's longest and deepest rail tunnel through the heart of the Alps in an engineering marvel that stands as a symbol of European unity at a time of increasing fragmentation.
The 57.1km-long Gotthard Base Tunnel, 17 years under construction and designed to last a century, is part of a 23 billion Swiss franc (S$32 billion) project to speed passengers and cargo by rail under the mountain chain that divides Europe's north and south.
With political unity on the continent shaken by a massive influx of migrants and the looming threat of Britain's EU departure, Swiss President Johan Schneider-Ammann said the tunnel would "join the people and the economies" of Europe.
He spoke before the tunnel made its ceremonial first run yesterday with European leaders on board in a show of solidarity. The passengers included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
While the tunnel was entirely funded by non-EU member Switzerland, the bloc's transport commissioner Violeta Bulc has hailed it as "a godsend" for the continent.
The tunnel along Europe's main rail line that connects the ports of Rotterdam in the north to Genoa in the south snakes through the mountains up to 2.3km below daylight and through rock as hot as 46 deg C.
It runs from Erstfeld in the central canton of Uri, to Bodio in the southern Ticino canton.
When the full service starts in December, the tunnel will shave the train journey from Zurich to Milan in northern Italy down to two hours and 40 minutes, roughly an hour less than it currently takes.
It should also make rail freight more efficient - partly by supporting heavier cargo, which should reduce the number of smoke-spewing lorries on the roads, in turn improving traffic and curbing pollution.
The number of daily rail passengers is expected to increase from the current rate of 9,000 people to 15,000 by 2020, according to the Swiss federal railway service.
The rough design for a rail tunnel under the Gotthard Pass was first sketched by Swiss engineer Carl Eduard Gruner in 1947.
But bureaucratic delays, concerns over the cost and other hurdles pushed back the start of construction until 1999.
According to the Swiss federal rail service, it took 43,800 hours of non-stop work by 125 labourers rotating in three shifts to lay the tunnel's slab track.
Engineers had to dig and blast through 73 kinds of rock as hard as granite and as soft as sugar. Nine workers died.
Federal transport office director Peter Fueglistaler called the tunnel "a masterpiece of timing, cost and policy".
"For us, conquering the Alps is like the Dutch exploring the oceans," he said.
The ambitious venture was largely made possible by technical advances in tunnel-boring machines, which replaced the costly and dangerous blast-and-drill method.
The primary machine used to make the Gotthard tunnel was roughly 410m long and functioned like a mobile factory.
It cuts through rock and throws the debris backwards while simultaneously placing the pre-formed segments of concrete that form the shape of the tunnel.
A separate system grouts the pieces together.
With its official opening, the Gotthard Base Tunnel has surpassed Japan's 53.9km Seikan tunnel as the world's longest train tunnel. The 50.5km Channel Tunnel that links England and France has been bumped into third place.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS