Swiss create world's longest tunnel

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Engineers have drilled through the last remaining rock to create the world's longest tunnel, under the Swiss Alps.

Imogen Foulkes describes the scene as the drill breaks through the remaining wall of rock

The 10m-diameter drill-head tore through the rock to cheers and applause from watching workers.

The 57km (35 mile) Gotthard rail tunnel has taken 14 years to build and is not likely to open before the end of 2016.

But it is expected to revolutionise transport across Europe, providing a high-speed link between the north and south of the continent.

Eventually, trains will travel through it at speeds of up to 250km/h (155mph).

Journey times between Zurich and Milan are likely to be slashed by as much as one-and-a-half hours.

The event, which took place shortly after 1415 (1215 GMT), was broadcast live on Swiss TV and watched by transport ministers across Europe.

Analysis

Tunnel builders cheered and raised their glasses as the huge 10m tunnel-boring machine, nicknamed Sissi, crashed through the last few metres of rock.

At the start of this mammoth project 14 years ago, many geologists told them it was impossible to bore a tunnel through here, saying the rock was too unpredictable and warning of dangers to anyone working underground.

Today the tunnellers and engineers have proved them wrong and, despite its price tag of $10bn, the Swiss are convinced this tunnel is worth it.

Europe's freight, rumbling through on the backs of 40-tonne lorries, has been clogging the alpine valleys for years: an estimated 3000 heavy goods vehicles pass through the Swiss Alps every day.

Switzerland wants that freight underground, on the railways, and the new tunnel should achieve just that - a completely flat, straight, high-speed link.

It will be another six years before the line is open, but today's breakthrough is, the Swiss say, a crucial step to improving Europe's transport network, and protecting the alpine environment.

The 9.8bn Swiss franc (£6.4bn; $10.3bn) project will take up to 300 trains each day underneath the Alps.

The length of the Gotthard tunnel exceeds the 53.8km Seikan rail tunnel linking the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido and the 50km Channel Tunnel linking England and France.

Many of the workers watched as the two ends of the tunnel met 2,000m underground.

The foreman lifted a statue of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of miners, through a small hole in the drilling machine.

Some 2,500 people have worked on the tunnel and eight people have lost their lives during its construction.

A minute's silence was held as the workers' names were read out during a ceremony marking the tunnel's completion.

Chief construction officer Heinz Ehrbar said that amid all the celebration, it was "very important that we remember that not all of our workers can be with us, but we are proud and we will be very happy this evening."

Switzerland is one of Europe's major junctions for freight and the tunnel is part of a larger project aiming to move cargo off the roads and on to rail.

Improvements on the northern and southern approaches to the new Gotthard tunnel have been postponed, so trains will run on existing track there.

Tunnel route - graphic

Unprecedented

The area already has the 34km Loetschberg rail tunnel, which opened in 2007, but this latest engineering feat is being hailed by leading members of the Swiss government as being of unprecedented significance.

Swiss Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger said that the Gotthard Tunnel would become a spectacular and grandiose monument with which all tunnels would be compared.

Two other transalpine tunnels are planned to exceed 50km but are unlikely to be complete until the 2020s. One tunnel will connect Lyon in France to Turin in Italy and another is due to replace the Brenner tunnel between Austria and Italy.

The head of the Swiss Federal Transport Office, Peter Fueglistaler, said he was very happy with the achievement: "In Switzerland we are not a very emotional people, but if we have the longest tunnel in the world that's... very, very emotional."

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