Nothing boring here

Switzerland's 34-mile-long Gotthard Base Tunnel opens today
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Gotthard Base Tunnel construction

Swiss Federal Railways begins public celebrations this week to mark the completion of a massive engineering and construction project that was decades in the making: the Gotthard Base Tunnel. The tunnel opens to regular passenger service today, June 1.

Any visitor to Switzerland who has ridden the line through the 1882 Gotthard rail tunnel will recall the numerous curves, loops and bridges on the approaches to the tunnel from both north and south. But the 2.6 percent grades and tight curvature on the approaches to the old tunnel have limited train size and speed. For years, Swiss transportation planners have wanted to iron out these capacity constraints.

As long ago as 1947, engineer Carl Eduard Gruner sketched a 31-mile route for a combined rail-highway tunnel that would bypass the 1882 tunnel. However, serious planning for more efficient transalpine rail routes didn’t come until the 1980s, when the Swiss government proposed the construction of several low-grade “base” tunnels on the country’s key alpine rail routes.

New tunnels and other improvements to enhance rail capacity were estimated to cost roughly $30 billion. To fund the initiative, which became known as the New Rail Link through the Alps, or NRLA, the government sought public support in the form of an increase in the country’s value-added tax, a new customs fee on imported petroleum products, and most important, a tax on heavy trucks that would furnish more than half the needed funds. In November 1998, voters approved this plan by a margin of almost 2-to-1.

Although two other tunnels were originally planned, the government realized by 2003 that the available funds would support only the plan’s key projects: one new tunnel on the Lötschberg route connecting Bern in the north with Brig in the south; and two on the Gotthard route. Both routes are major arteries not only for Swiss domestic passenger and cargo traffic, but also for people and freight moving between Germany and Italy.

The 21.5-mile Lötschberg Base Tunnel opened in 2007. But the Gotthard tunnel was the centerpiece of the project to improve rail capacity. Total cost of the Gotthard route projects would be approximately $13 billion. This included both the replacement of the existing 9.3-mile Gotthard tunnel with a new, 35.4-mile base tunnel, and a second, 9.6-mile bore (the Ceneri Base Tunnel) between Bellinzona and Lugano.

In 1999, construction of the twin-bore Gotthard Base Tunnel began with blasting of two access tunnels from the surface, at Amsteg and Faido. In 2002, the first of four tunnel boring machines went to work at the south end of the tunnel (Bodio). These massive machines would ultimately be responsible for 80 percent of the project’s excavation work, with the remainder done by traditional blasting techniques.

By 2004, work was underway at five separate construction sites: Erstfeld in the north, Bodio in the south, and three intermediate sites reached via access tunnels from the surface.

In October 2010, final breakthrough occurred in the east bore, meaning that this tube was now open from end to end. Final excavation work was completed in 2011. By that time installation of railway systems – track, train control, power, communication, and related equipment – was already underway in the south end of the tunnel.

The two bores are between 130 and 230 feet apart through most of the tunnel. There are 178 cross passages, at intervals of 1,065 feet, that allow personnel to move from one bore to the other.

In addition, there two intermediate “multifunction stations” at Sedrun and Faido, where crossovers allow trains to move from one bore to the other. The tunnel’s major ventilation systems are located at these points.
These stations are also equipped to serve as emergency evacuation points. If, for example, there is a fire on a train, the operator will be instructed to move to the next multifunction station (unless one of the tunnel portals is closer). At the station, passengers will be evacuated from the train and moved through a passageway to the other bore, where an evacuation train will remove them from the tunnel. In the meantime, fire control trains will move into place to deal with the disabled train.

This summer, freight and intercity passenger trains will begin operating through the new tunnel, although public timetables won’t be adjusted to reflect the shorter running times until December. At that time, local train services between Lugano and Bellinzona in the south and Erstfeld in the north will become the only regularly scheduled passenger trains running via the old tunnel.

The Ceneri Base Tunnel is scheduled to open in 2020. Once it is in service, passenger trains between Zurich and Milan will see a full hour cut from their schedules, as compared with those currently in effect.

For now, intercity passenger trains will use existing equipment, both conventional locomotive-hauled coaches (retrofitted to operate in the new tunnel) as well as the Alstom-built fleet of ETR610 high-speed tilting trains.

However, use of this equipment will be a temporary measure, as the Swiss railroad has ordered 29 11-car non-tilting EC250 trainsets from Stadler that will replace the ETR610 trains on the Gotthard route. They are expected to go into service by 2020.

The low-grade, high-clearance rail route through the heart of the Swiss Alps will also allow a significant increase in rail freight volumes. While the old route had a theoretical capacity of 180 freight trains a day, the new route will accommodate up to 260 freight trains daily, with fewer locomotives. The route’s 13-foot clearances will also permit operation of “rolling highways” of truck-trailer rigs, thereby easing congestion on transalpine roads, particularly through the often-congested Gotthard Pass highway tunnel.
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