Take a ride on the new record-breaking rail tunnel

EDGAR takes a seat on Switzerland’s new Gotthard Base Tunnel that is now the longest and deepest in the world.

Robert Chilton June 6, 2016

EDGAR had a seat on the first passenger train to pass through the record-breaking tunnel alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Matteo Renzi, the Italian Prime Minister – talk about first class. 

The distance of 57.1km doesn’t sound that much, does it? It’s a decent bike ride on a peaceful Friday morning. It’s a quick blast down the Sheikh Zayed Road from Dubai Airport to Jebel Ali.

But imagine ploughing through 57.1km of mountainous rock for 57.1km.

That’s what a team of more than 2,000 workers and engineers did to construct the Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland during a construction period of almost two decades. 

The tunnel has overtaken Japan’s 53.9km Seikan tunnel, as well as the Euro Tunnel that runs for 50.5km between France and England. Running at a depth of 2.3km below the Alps from sleepy Erstfeld in northern Switzerland to the even sleepier Pollegio in the south, the tunnel is a feat of engineering and sheer hard graft. 

Passenger trains zip below the surface at 250kmh and complete the trip in just 14 minutes. It’s thought that 65 passenger trains will make this journey every day when the tunnel fully opens to the public in December, with around 250 freight trains sharing the track.

Rock was obliterated by a 410m-long tunnelling machine, tipped with a 10m-drill bit, that now stands at the tunnel's southerly entrance. The drill powered through 73 different kinds of rock at a rate of 40 metres a day. Tragically, nine people died in accidents during the mammoth construction job.

Charly Simmen, the project’s senior engineer, said one of the chief difficulties was that the tunnel took so long to build that the technology they worked with changed during the process. “What you start working with you don't end up with. You have to try to plan into the future,” he said.

Number crunching

  • Length of tunnel: 57.1km
  • Cost: $12bn

  • Length of drilling machine: 410m

  • Number of deaths during construction: 9

  • Freight trains that will pass through the tunnel every day: 250

  • Passenger trains that will pass through the tunnel every day: 65

  • Journey time: 17 mins

  • 3,200km of copper cable used

  • 4m cubic metres of concrete used

The famous Swiss precision was evident in the astonishing fact that the Gotthard Tunnel was built from either end and met in the middle to within an accuracy of just 10cm.

In a statement that echoed Neil Arsmtrong on the moon, Swiss Federal President Johann Schneider-Ammann said it was a "giant step for Switzerland but equally for our neighbours and the rest of the continent".