On October 15, Federal Councillor Moritz Leuenberger will celebrate his finest hour. The breakthrough of the 57-kilometre-long Gotthard Base Tunnel will be his last important public act before his resignation takes effect. This milestone will bring the completion of the world's longest rail tunnel into sight. But will it serve as the important incentive for the European transport sector to move their freight onto the rail?
The Gotthard base rail tunnel is the most prestigious component of the Neuen Eisenbahn-Alpentransversalen or NEAT (New Alps Transversal Route) project, and Social Democrat (SP), Moritz Leuenberger has been its most vocal advocate. Meant to take cargo away from mountain passes and road tunnels, and onto trains, the tunnels satisfy a public concern. Back in 1998, the Swiss, who care deeply about their Alps, voted overwhelmingly in favour of the rail tunnel project. Such is their commitment to NEAT, they even voted against expanding the Gotthard road tunnel as recently as 2004.
Let the train take the strain
So far, the Swiss have peacefully tolerated traffic jams at the Gotthard tunnel. They have set all their hopes on the Gotthard rail tunnel, which will be finished in 2017. If most cargo can be diverted to rail, they believe the two-lane road tunnel will suffice for normal car traffic.
However, that moment is far away. Today, all eyes are set on October 15, when traffic ministers from across Europe are invited to celebrate the breakthrough of the future European rail corridor with the Swiss.
Two months before the final breakthrough, Claudio Isler, construction supervisor at the Gotthard base tunnel, stands in the Faido logistics centre, deep inside the mountain. Nearly two kilometres separate him from the summit of the Gotthard massif overhead. Fluorescent tubes cast long shadows in the tunnel corridors, where builders are sealing tunnel walls with concrete and giant steel braces. Saint Barbara, patroness of mining and tunnel workers, is watching the scene from a dimly lit alcove. The construction noise is deafening.
"The biggest challenge of the whole project," says the ETH-trained engineer, "is that we have so much back-pressure from the mountain here, that we have seen the rocks above us shift by more than one metre. Our drilling caused earthquakes of up to 2.4 on the Richter scale, which was a significant setback."
As soon as the workers tunnelled a metre into the mountain, the hole was immediately...