A construction project serving Europe – The opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel in 2016

Article, 16.03.2016

The world’s longest railway tunnel – the Gotthard Base Tunnel – was officially opened on 1 June 2016 . Covering 57.1km, it is the cornerstone of the European Rhine-Alpine Corridor for freight transport, and is part of Switzerland’s New Rail Link through the Alps (NRLA). This once-in-a-century construction project constitutes a substantial contribution by Switzerland to Europe’s transport infrastructure, symbolising Swiss values, such as innovation, precision and reliability. Its commercial commissioning by the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) took place on 11 December 2016.

View of the north entrance of the Gotthard Base Tunnel at Erstfeld in the canton of Uri.
Portal Nord Erstfeld © AlpTransit Gotthard AG

The Rhine-Alpine Corridor

The Rotterdam/Antwerp-Genoa railway corridor is Europe’s most important freight transport axis in terms of volume. It runs along the Rhine through Europe’s industrial heartland, linking dynamically growing economic hubs, such as Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Cologne, Frankfurt am Main, Basel, Zurich, Milan and Genoa. Forecasts indicate that the volume of freight on this railway line is set to increase further. The EU classifies the Rhine-Alpine Corridor as a priority and will invest around EUR 25 billion in its expansion over the coming years. The corridor is an integral part of the European policy on the development of trans-European transport networks (TEN-T) in which it plays a pioneering role.

The Swiss people approve sustainable transport policy

Switzerland has been pursuing a sustainable transport policy since the 1980s which has focused on shifting transalpine traffic from the road to rail. The Swiss people have endorsed this policy in several referenda. The NRLA concept was approved by the Swiss electorate on 27 September 1992 and the corresponding financing model on 29 November 1998 by clear majorities (both 64%). This large-scale project has therefore been legitimised by means of direct democracy.

NRLA – a once-in-a-century construction project

The NRLA is the largest construction project that Switzerland has ever undertaken in its history. It consists of three new base tunnels (Lötschberg 34.6km, Gotthard 57.1km and Ceneri 15.4km) and the expansion of the approach routes. The Lötschberg Base Tunnel has been in operation since 2007 and the Ceneri Base Tunnel is set to open in 2020. Switzerland is investing around CHF 23.5 billion (around EUR 21.5 billion) in the construction of the NRLA, which equates to approximately 3.5% of Swiss gross domestic product (GDP).

After completion of the work at Ceneri and on the approach routes, trains will be able to cross the Alps without any significant gradients. The journey time for passenger transport between Zurich and Lugano will be reduced by around 45 minutes, more freight trains will be able to travel through the Alps more quickly and fewer locomotives will be required. The efficiency and reliability of railway transport is improving which makes the railways more competitive and strengthens the EU single market. Economic benefits and the protection of the alpine environment have therefore been reconciled.

The Gotthard Base Tunnel – a record-breaking project

The first plans for a base tunnel between Amsteg and Bodio were drawn up in 1947. Just short of 70 years later and after a 17-year construction period, the Gotthard Base Tunnel, which is 57.1km in length, replaces the Seikan Tunnel (53.9km) in Japan as the world’s longest railway tunnel. The breakthrough was made in October 2010. The Gotthard Base Tunnel cost around CHF 12.5 billion (around EUR 11.5 billion) and connects Bodio in the canton of Ticino with Erstfeld in the canton of Uri.

The section of line through the Gotthard Base Tunnel is around 30 kilometres shorter than the current route running over the mountain. Capacity will be increased thanks to the new tunnel. Up to 250 freight trains and 65 passenger trains can be used per day in future. Capacity was restricted to a maximum of 180 freight trains on the existing Gotthard mountain line. Passenger trains will travel through the tunnel at up to 200km/h and speeds of up to 250km/h will be feasible in future.

Switzerland invests for Europe

Shorter journey times makes Switzerland’s regions as well as Germany and Italy more accessible. Over 20 million people in the area lying between southern Germany and northern Italy alone will benefit from the Gotthard Base Tunnel. The Gotthard Base Tunnel represents a significant Swiss contribution to European transport policy and brings Europe closer together.

The Gotthard Base Tunnel is both “an idea born in Switzerland” – which Switzerland has financed itself – and the result of close international cooperation. Companies and workers from around 15 countries were involved in the construction project. Tunnel boring machines came from Germany, for example, shaft construction specialists from South Africa and many engineers and tunnelling specialists from Italy, Austria and the Balkan states.