Gotthard Base: a renaissance for megaprojects?

Mike Chrimes, Engineering Historian, tracks the evolution of trans-Alpine road and rail routes between Switzerland and Italy, following the opening of the world’s longest railway tunnel

At 57km long the Gotthard Base Tunnel is the world’s longest rail tunnel, built at a cost of £8.41bn.
At 57km long the Gotthard Base Tunnel is the world’s longest rail tunnel, built at a cost of £8.41bn.
  • Updated: 21 June, 2016
  • Author: Mike Chrimes, Engineering Historian

The opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel on 1 June provides another example of today's engineers creating a series of engineering wonders that supplant the achievements of a century ago. The new Gotthard is set to revolutionise transport through the Alps. These modern megaprojects have been achieved with relative ease compared with the original schemes, despite their larger scale.

The original Gotthard tunnel, 15 km long broke through in 1880. Although not the first transalpine railway tunnel, it was the most impressive achievement. The contractors lost 12.45 million francs on the job, having completed more than two years late, and the principal contractor Louis Favre died of a heart attack in the tunnel in 1879. The workings were wet from the first, water to power compressed air for the drilling equipment was in short supply, and the serpentine rock was unexpectedly hard. Lining was made difficult by areas of weak rock with the consistency of flowing clay. Dust and fumes crippled workers after three to four months' work and hookworm took a heavy toll, resulting overall in more than 310 deaths and 877 permanent disabilities.

In 1980 the Gotthard Road Tunnel, at 16.9 kilometres long, the longest road tunnel in the world was completed. Forming part of the A2 motorway route from Basel to Chiasso, it comprised only one bidirectional tube with two lanes. Parallel to the rail tunnel, it was built to deal with the enormous post war growth in road traffic.

Road freight through Switzerland continued to grow unabated, but when a proposal was made to increase this tunnel's capacity the Swiss population effectively revolted, and work was initially only approved for a diversionary tunnel while work takes place on repairing the existing tunnel. The preferred alternative was for a new railway tunnel, or rather a series of tunnels, with a view to taking freight traffic on the Rotterdam-Genoa axis off Switzerland's roads.

Tunnel route through the Alps
Tunnel route through the Alps

The original Gottardbahn follows a winding route. The new high speed line or AlpTransit project includes the Lötschberg Base Tunnel between Bern and Valais, and the Ceneri Base Tunnel (scheduled to open in late 2020) to the south. It will cut the Zürich- Milan journey time for passenger trains by one hour. Although project costs were exceeded by about ten percent, it was completed ahead of schedule.

28,200,000 tonnes of rock were excavated and took 43,800 man hours to lay the slab track. The idea was first proposed in 1947 by Carl Eduard Gruner, an engineer and urban planner from Basel, who had the visionary idea of a Gotthard Base Tunnel as an element in a high speed transit system. The idea was under serious consideration from the 1960s, but it was really only the environmental impact of road freight traffic that created the political will to undertake such a project.

It is of some interest, in the context of the arguments in the UK about HS2, that it was popular support that drove the political will for this project, and it was support based on widespread understanding of the lack of capacity on the Swiss transport network. This kind of understanding seems to be generally lacking when megaprojects are considered. Perhaps this new Swiss wonder will help.

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