Switzerland opens Gotthard Tunnel

If you like scenic rail trips through the Alps then the recent opening of Switzerland’s Gotthard base tunnel will not be welcome.

If your business depends on freight links between northern and southern Europe then you will be pleased to see the 57km tunnel. It lops 30km from the traditional route through the old Gotthard tunnels and provides more capacity for freight trains.

The new tunnels are the culmination of immense engineering effort. They also show how long it takes to build major rail projects. Although the idea for the tunnel was first mooted in 1947, it was not until November 1999 that work officially started to dig through hard Alpine rock.

There have been financial problems along the way, as well as a period in the 1980s when the tunnels were not thought to be needed. Switzerland held several public votes to test whether its citizens supported the idea of these massive tunnels. It turned out that they did.

The idea of a base tunnel is that rather than climbing a valley and then piercing a mountain with a tunnel, a base tunnel disappears underground in the valley bottom, to emerge in the equivalent place on the other side of the hill. If you were to build one for Manchester to Leeds, it would start at the foot of Miles Platting bank, immediately east of Manchester Victoria station, and emerge at Mirfield, 30 miles away. It would cut journey times but I wouldn’t fancy the view.

Amid much fanfare, the Swiss opened the Gotthard tunnel on June 1, with services expected to start running in December, when European timetables next change. Gotthard lies on the rail route that links the Northern European ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam with Genoa in Italy, running via Germany’s Ruhr industrial heartland and Milan, which is the economic powerhouse of Northern Italy.

It’s remarkable that Switzerland has ploughed so much money into a project that supports European Union policies (it’s not part of the EU) and does much to support the economies of its neighbours. Of course, there’s something in it for Switzerland too. It should see a reduction in lorries crossing the country by road, with a higher proportion carried ‘piggyback’ on wagons. Rail already holds a 70% market share of international freight and plans to increase lorry fees and cut rail track access fees should further encourage the switch.

The costs are eye-watering. In 1998, the Swiss parliament authorised 30 billion Swiss francs (£21bn) for the Gotthard, Lotschberg, Ceneri and Zimmerburg base tunnels and a link from Eastern Switzerland that would join the Gotthard route near Lake Zurich. This sum was to be financed 55% from heavy road vehicle tax, 19% from a 0.1% increase in VAT and 10% from customs duties on fuels with the rest coming from loans.

Of these four tunnels, Lotschberg opened in December 2007, Ceneri is planned to open in 2020 and while the first Zimmerberg tunnel has been completed, work on the second is suspended. Gotthard, Ceneri and Zimmerberg all lie on the same route.

The 30bn proved not to be enough and by 2004 the project was trimmed. Yet it was not until 2008 that the Swiss parliament closed the credit gap by authorising 13bn Swiss francs for Gotthard and Ceneri tunnels.

As with many huge engineering projects, the figures associated with building Gotthard are impressive. Up to 2,400 workers built the two 57-km single-track tunnels. When you add cross-passages and shafts, the total length stretches to 152km. Tunnellers excavated 28.2 million tonnes of rock, some of which was reused to make the concrete that lines the tunnel walls, while some now forms the fill for dams or is used for landscaping.

At its greatest, there’s 2,300m of rock above the tunnels, which puts immense pressure on some parts.Unlike the shorter Channel Tunnel, there appear to be no plans to scan passengers and their luggage before transiting Gotthard.

It took three years to install the track. And that was with 125 workers over three shifts per day, seven days per week. They laid 290km of slab track, 380,000 sleepers and used 131,000 cubic metres of concrete. The final ‘golden sleeper’ was laid in October 2014.

Nine workers died during construction and they are commemorated by a memorial unveiled on May 31.

The emphasis of the tunnel is clear from its 260 daily freight paths (compared with 180 on the classic route) and capacity for 65 daily passenger services. Freight will run at 160km/h (100mph) and passenger trains at 200km/h (125mph). Tests using a ICE train hired from DB reached 275km/h (172mph) which gives the potential for higher passenger speeds. Freight tests involved running a 2,200 tonne train, 1,500m long with a locomotive at the front, in the middle and at the rear.

These tests showed the ability of the tunnel and its European Train Control System (ETCS) Level 2 signalling to cope. This is in-cab signalling and moves away from each country having its own signalling systems, which should reduce the need to change locomotives at borders. This can save time, as does the tunnel’s gentler 1.25% gradient which removes the need to add extra locomotives as is done on the classic route.

Building Gotthard has taken decades of planning and commitment. It had a wobbly patch in the 1980s, partly as a result of recession and its case was not helped by another recession in the late 2000s but by then construction was well underway. Gotthard’s case was made stronger by its being the subject of a successful referendum in which the Swiss voted for it. But given the angst that Britain’s European Union referendum has caused, I can’t see any government here putting HS2 to the vote.

To fully return the benefits of Gotthard, Ceneri must be opened. Zimmerberg must be completed and opened too. To deliver best effect from HS2, Britain will need to deliver other projects. That doesn’t mean HS2 is worthless on its own, simply that it will be part of a network and not a isolated line.

This article first appeared in RAIL 803, published June 22 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com