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World’s Longest Tunnel Underway Beneath The Swiss Alps

October 15, 2010

The world’s longest tunnel was started on Friday using a giant drilling machine to help clear a path deep beneath the Swiss Alps.

“The Gotthard will forever be a spectacular and grandiose monument with which all tunnels will be compared,” said Swiss Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger.

The 35.4-mile Gotthard base tunnel will connect a new network between northern and southeastern Europe, which could shift truck freight onto rails and decongest the Alps in central Switzerland when it opens in 2017.

Passengers will be able to use the tunnel to get from the Italian city of Milan to Zurich in less than three hours, as well as cut the journey to Germany by an hour.

However, the $9.8 billion tunnel has brought concern about pollution in the Alps from road traffic.

The 31-feet wide drilling machine will take on five feet of rock to join two ends of the tunnel about 6,500 feet under a mountain.

Eight workers have died during construction since the new tunnel began 15 years ago.

The Gotthard tunnel will exceed the 33 mile Seikan rail tunnel, which is the world’s largest tunnel.

Switzerland struggled to convoke skeptical European neighbors to support its project in the 1990s.

However, they gained momentum when Swiss voters supported a green motion to stop heavy trucks from crossing the Alps, including the expanding flow of transiting EU goods traffic.

According to a nationwide poll commissioned by an Alpine environmental lobby group, 67 percent of those surveyed support a ban on truck traffic through the St. Gotthard road tunnel.

Austria, France and Italy have set two similar monumental rail tunnel projects through the eastern and western Alps in recent years.

According to planners, about 300 trains should be able to speed through the Gotthard’s twin tubes each day at up to speeds of 155 mph.

Director of the Swiss Federal Office of Transport, Peter Fueglistaler, said Friday the event was “a day of joy for Switzerland.”

“We are not a very emotional people but if we have the longest tunnel in the world, this also for us is very, very emotional” he told The Associated Press.

Swiss engineers hope the project is completed by the end of 2016, but delays might be met by protests in Germany and Italy, where local opposition to new tracks and budget constraints have become an issue.

“Our neighbors in Germany and Italy will have to fulfill their promise and provide high-speed rail links,” Fueglistaler told AP.

Image Courtesy AlpTransit Gotthard AG

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