The Gotthard Base Tunnel is a railway base tunnel through the Alps in Switzerland, which opened on 1 June 2016 with full service to begin in December 2016. With a route length of 57.09 km (35.5 mi) and a total of 151.84 km (94.3 mi) of tunnels, shafts and passages, it is the world’s longest and deepest traffic tunnel and the first flat, low-level route through the Alps.
The project consists of two single-track tunnels connecting Erstfeld (Uri) with Bodio (Ticino) and passing below Sedrun (Graubünden). It is part of the AlpTransit project, also known as the New Railway Link through the Alps (NRLA), which includes the Lötschberg Base Tunnel between the cantons of Bern and Valais and the Ceneri Base Tunnel (under construction, scheduled to open late 2020) to the south. It bypasses the Gotthardbahn, a winding mountain route opened in 1882 across the Saint-Gotthard Massif, which is now operating at capacity, and establishes a direct route usable by high-speed rail and heavy freight trains. It is the third tunnel connecting the cantons of Uri and Ticino after the Gotthard Tunnel and the Gotthard Road Tunnel.
The main purpose of the Gotthard Base Tunnel is to increase local transport capacity across the Alps, especially for freight, notably on the Rotterdam–Basel–Genoa corridor, and more particularly to shift freight volumes from road to rail to reduce fatal crashes and environmental damage caused by ever-increasing numbers of heavy lorries. Another benefit will be to provide a faster connection between the canton of Ticino and the rest of Switzerland, as well as between northern and southern Europe, cutting the Zürich–Lugano–Milan journey time for passenger trains by one hour (and from Lucerne to Bellinzona by 45 minutes).
After 64 percent of Swiss voters accepted the AlpTransit project in a 1992 referendum, tunnel construction began in 1996. Drilling operations in the eastern tunnel were completed on 15 October 2010 in a breakthrough ceremony broadcast live on Swiss TV, and in the western tunnel on 23 March 2011. AlpTransit Gotthard Ltd. planned to hand over the tunnel to Swiss Federal Railways (SBB CFF FFS) in operating condition in December 2016; but on 4 February 2014, the handover date was changed to 5 June 2016 with the commencement of an 850-day opening countdown calendar on the AlpTransit homepage. Total projected cost of the project was 9.8 billion Swiss francs (€8.85 billion or US$10.3 billion ) but the final cost exceeded $12 billion. Nine people lost their lives during construction.
The Gotthard Base Tunnel is, with a length of 57.09 kilometres (35.47 mi), the longest railway tunnel in the world, with a geodetic distance of 55.782 kilometres (34.661 mi) between the two portals. It is also the first flat route through the Alps or any other major mountain range, with a maximum height of 549 metres (1,801 ft) above sea level. It is therefore the deepest railway tunnel in the world, with a maximum depth of approximately 2,300 metres (7,500 ft), comparable to that of the deepest mines on earth. Without ventilation, the temperature inside the mountain reaches 46 °C (115 °F).
Like the two other tunnels passing below the Gotthard, the Gotthard Base Tunnel connects the Alpine valley of the Reuss (Urner Reusstal) in the canton of Uri to that of the Ticino (Leventina) in the homonymous canton, valleys separated by the Gotthard Pass. However, unlike these two and most other tunnels, the Gotthard Base Tunnel passes under several distinct mountain massifs, two of them being major subranges of the Alps, the Glarus Alps and the Saint-Gotthard Massif, with the valley of the Anterior Rhine (Surselva), in the canton of Graubünden, between them. The tunnel crosses these two ranges in the vicinity of the Chrüzli Pass and the Lukmanier Pass. While the cantons of Uri and Ticino are part of the German- and Italian-speaking areas of Switzerland respectively, the Surselva is mainly Romansh-speaking.
AlpTransit Gotthard AG is responsible for construction. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB CFF FFS). To cut construction time in half, four access tunnels were built so that construction could start at four (a fifth was added later) different sites simultaneously (Erstfeld, Amsteg, Sedrun, Faido and Bodio). The two tunnels are joined approximately every 325 m (1,066 ft) by connecting galleries. Trains can swap tunnels in the two multifunction stations (MFS) at Sedrun and Faido. These stations will house ventilation equipment and technical infrastructure and will serve as emergency stops and evacuation routes upon tunnel completion. Access to the Sedrun station site is by a level access tunnel 1 km (0.6 mi) long from the valley floor near Sedrun, at the end of which two vertical shafts lead 800 m (2,625 ft) down to the base tunnel level. A proposal to construct a functioning railway station, called Porta Alpina, at this site was evaluated, but the project was put on hold in 2007 and definitively shelved by the federal authorities in 2012 as uneconomic. The final breakthrough in the east tube occurred on 15 October 2010 at 14:17 +02:00. The final breakthrough in the west tube occurred on Wednesday 23 March 2011 at 12:20.
Deaths during construction
Nine workers lost their lives during construction, one in the Amsteg section, two in the Sedrun section, and three each in the southernmost Faido and Bodio sections. These were:
Andreas Reichhardt (33) from Gera, Germany, the first victim of the tunnel construction, was hit by a boring bar that fell down 700m, on 8 June 2000.
Jacques Du Plooy (23) from South Africa, was buried by excavation material on 12 March 2002.
Heiko Bujack (35) from Harbke, Germany, was hit by a rock on 3 April 2003.
Albert Ginzinger (37) from Mauterndorf, Austria, was killed on 11 September 2003.
Salvatore di Benedetto (23) from Giubiasco, Italy, was hit by a colliding mine train on 21 January 2005.
Andrea Astorino (31) from Italy was hit by a colliding mine train on 21 January 2005.
Thorsten Elsemann from Oberhausen, Germany, was crushed to death by a mine train on 23 November 2006.
Hans Gammel from Germany was catapulted out of an inspection train on 24 June 2010.
Giuseppe Liuzzo from Naso, Italy, fell from a scaffold on 16 June 2012.
On 31 May, a day ahead of the inauguration, the nine people who died during construction were commemorated in a ceremony at the north portal in Erstfeld that was led by a Catholic Vicar general and a Vicar of the Evangelical-Reformed Church of Uri (de). A bronze memorial plaque with their names – four coming from Germany, three from Italy, one from South Africa and one from Austria – was unveiled by AlpTransit Gotthard CEO Renzo Simoni.
The tunnel was officially inaugurated on 1 June 2016. At the northern entrance in Erstfeld, Swiss Federal President Johann Schneider-Ammann spoke of a “giant step for Switzerland but equally for our neighbours and the rest of the continent”, while a live relay carried a speech of transport minister Doris Leuthard from the southern entrance in Bodio. The first ride carried hundreds of Swiss citizens who had won tickets in a draw, while the assembled guests in Erstfeld, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, attended an opening show featuring dancers, acrobats, singers and musicians celebrating Alpine culture and history.