Travelling through Europe just got quicker with Swiss Gotthard project set to open
GOTTHARD TUNNEL, SWITZERLAND – Famous for innovation, precision and punctuality, the Swiss have again broken ground, in more ways than one.
In the heart of Europe, 17 years in the making, and one year ahead of schedule, the Gotthard Base Tunnel — the longest rail tunnel in the world — carves its way through the Gotthard Massif in the Alps, the continent’s highest mountain range. At 57 kilometres, it surpasses Japan’s 54-kilometere Seikan Tunnel and links Switzerland’s different cultural regions.
All eyes will be on this quantum leap that will bring Germany in the north and Italy in the south a lot closer when — by way of Switzerland — high-speed train service officially begins on December 11, 2016. The train will whisk passengers and goods through the tunnel at speeds up to 250 km/h between the German-speaking canton of Uri to the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino in 20 minutes, faster than it takes to sip a latte.
An aficionado of train travel and an ardent fan of Switzerland’s fantastically efficient rail system, regarded as the best in the world, it was hard not to be a bit giddy when I heard the news.
The Alps covers three-quarters of this landlocked country, but that has never stopped the Swiss from designing and constantly improving its renowned transportation network, which helps locals and travellers commute easily from one village to the next and between metropolitan cities, taking the guesswork and stress out of getting from here to there. That’s huge for visitors because land transportation plays a major role when planning a holiday.
Whether going to work or heading for the ski slopes, the Swiss hop-on and hop-off clean and safe trains get people wherever they need to go. Frequent departures (every 10 to 15 minutes is typical), helpful state-of-the-art signs at train stations and bus stops, English spoken on public announcement systems and a timetable that coincides connections with trains, buses and boats, runs like, well, clockwork. With the integration of the Gotthard Base Tunnel, commuting will be even faster. And fewer cars on the road means less pollution, an environmental priority and another Swiss cornerstone.
Switzerland, the home of timeless watchmaking and divine chocolate and cheese, also created the Swiss Travel Pass, a passport for visitors to board trains, buses and boats without ever having to stand in line to purchase a ticket (as well as free entry into almost 500 museums). With non-stop views – from mesmerizing mountain peaks, forests and lakes to romantic wine country and storybook villages – even my shortest commutes were relaxing journeys.
“Swiss people travel by public transport a lot, are proud of their system and want tourists to experience this unique network of perfected connections,” said Tabea Mandour, Project Manager Gotthard at Swiss Travel System. “We are convinced that travelling by train, bus and boat is the best way to experience our country.”
That explains why a strong majority of the Swiss electorate voted in 1992 in favour of the New Railway Link Through the Alps project to build (at the tune of 12.2 billion francs, $15.9 billion Cdn) the Gotthard Base Tunnel on the all-important north-south axis that also links freight transport to other parts of the continent, the flagship point of the government’s ambitious long-term transportation program.
Joining the Gotthard Rail Tunnel built in 1882 and the Gotthard Road Tunnel built in 1980, the trio of major tunnels through the Alps — at the strategic crossroads of Europe — is the pride of Switzerland.
Since antiquity, humans have persevered conquering the treacherous Gotthard Pass when merchants, ambassadors and scientists first trekked the route on foot, then by stagecoach, trailblazing what would become the economic and political backbone for the region.
The first Gotthard rail tunnel, at 15 kilometres, was the longest in the world at the time. The Gotthard, as it was called in a travel guidebook written in 1897, was the biggest tourist attraction in Switzerland when adventurous travellers from afar came to witness, not just the profound beauty of the Alps, but this engineering wonder.
According to Kilian T. Elsasser, historian and former curator of rail transport at the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne, no other traffic route in the world has shaped a country the way the Gotthard route has shaped Switzerland.
Now, 134 years later, the Gotthard Pass is in the 21st century spotlight. Sophisticated high-tech trains will move stealth-like on level ground along two single-track tubes 2,300 metres below ground. The extraordinary engineering feat will accommodate 65 passenger trains and 260 freight trains per day.
Passenger safety is in place, too, with emergency stop stations facilitated by six “connection tunnels” between the parallel tubes for smooth evacuation as well as a ventilation system that will circulate clean air.
Protecting the environment was as important as the transportation project itself, which became the most ambitious environmental protection effort in the history of Europe. Streams were rerouted, transitional habitats for reptiles and small animals were created, a chestnut forest was fortified and wildlife and people were protected from noise, dust and sludge. It’s no wonder construction took so long – it takes time to do things right.
With two months left before high-speed train service begins, there’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the curious to view the belly of the “once-in-a-century construction” before its maiden voyage in December. Between Aug. 2 and Nov. 27, the special Gottardino train will transport visitors 800 metres underground to the multi-function Sedrun station midway through the Gotthard Base Tunnel to see the magnitude of this technical masterpiece. Such a stop will not be possible after high-speed service commences. Now that’s a bucket list item.
And for the romantics who like watching the world go by a bit more slowly, the Gotthard’s original panoramic train route over the Gotthard Pass will continue operating along the mountainside. Whether venturing through the Alps or over the Alps, experiencing the Gotthard will soon be at its best.
And you can sip your latte, too.
By Athena Lucero | www.travelife.ca
Information ~ For information about the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the Swiss Travel Pass (must be purchased before departing your country), and travel throughout Switzerland, visit www.swisstravelsystem.com or go to www.myswitzerland.com