Switzerland Tunnel Sets High Bar For Rail Projects

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In Switzerland, a huge drill will bite through the last of the rock on the construction of the world's longest tunnel. More than 30 miles long, it cuts through the Swiss mountains and is expected to revolutionize travel in Europe. Built at a cost of 13 hundred dollars levied against every Swiss citizen, it is being built, among other things, to protect Switzerland's pristine mountains.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

In Switzerland today, the drilling stopped, and the cheering began. Engineers have created a thirty-five-and-a-half-mile rail tunnel through the Alps. That's the world's longest tunnel. Once complete, it's hoped the Gotthard Base Tunnel will cut in half the number of heavy trucks barreling through Switzerland's pristine landscape.

Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: At 2:17 p.m., Swiss time, a gigantic drilling machine named Sissi broke through a final rock wall deep beneath the Swiss Alps, prompting cheers from hundreds of workers in hardhats and sending waves of euphoria and pride through the tiny Alpine nation.

Eight people died digging the tunnel a mile-and-a-half below the Gotthard massif. Engineers had to overcome crumbling rock and underground rivers they found along the way.

(Soundbite of music)

BEARDSLEY: Trumpets sounded, and workers wiped away tears as nearly 20 years of drilling came to an end. When the Gotthard Base Tunnel is fully completed in 2017, it will allow millions of tons of goods currently transported by trucks to be shifted to trains and will play a key role in the creation of a high-speed rail network connecting all corners of Europe.

The Gotthard Base tunnel will cost $12 billion, about $1,300 dollars for every Swiss taxpayer. The Swiss were willing to pay that to get thousands of polluting trucks off the roads and preserve their pristine Alpine environment.

Six million passengers a year will soon be whizzing from Zurich to Milan in two and a half hours at an average speed of 150 miles per hour. And there's even more to be proud of, says Swiss Department of Transport director Peter Fuglistaller.

Mr. PETER FUGLISTALLER (Director, Swiss Department of Transport): Switzerland is very, very fond of tunnels. So we have been building tunnels for a century. And for a long, long time we had the longest tunnel. And the last 20 years, the Japanese they had the longest, also the Chunnel was longer. And now we are back to being number one in tunnels, and we are very, very proud about that.

BEARDSLEY: The entire Swiss nation was captivated by the project, following it every step of the way.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: In June, the first tunnel boring machine arrives from Ertvelde(ph).

BEARDSLEY: Video progress reports were posted regularly on the tunnel constructor's website. Today, Switzerland's neighbors were also watching the breakthrough. European transport ministers meeting in Luxembourg tuned in live. The project has set a high bar for two future Alpine rail projects - one connecting France and Italy, the other linking Italy with Austria.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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