Straight to the Point: Why the Gotthard Base Tunnel Is an Engineering Dream

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When imagining a railway through the Swiss Alps, one wouldn’t be remiss to picture a slow-moving train car winding its way up and around slopes, a beautiful interaction between man-made triumph and natural wonder.

The vision would be similar to the Gotthard Railway line, a decade-long late-19th-century project that first connected the north of Switzerland to its isolated southern cantons, and through gaining access to the Italian border, served as a key linkage between northern and southern Europe.

As time evolves though, what was once only thinkable becomes possible. In 1999, 52 years after an original design was proposed, and over a century after the completion of the Gotthard Railway line, four 1,400 foot-long drill machines weighing 3,300 tons each started boring ground for a new project called the Gotthard Base Tunnel.

Seventeen years later, it would open as the longest and deepest railway tunnel in the world at over 35 miles long and almost a mile and a half under the surface of the Alpine barrier.

Here’s why the Gotthard Base Tunnel is one badass engineering development.

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1. Project for the People

Moving at speeds between 125-155 miles per hour, what used to take four hours and change to travel between Zurich and Milan now takes two and a half hours, resulting in significant time savings for any and all travel routes in between. While that time savings might allow people to extend their day or weekend trip a little longer, the Gotthard Base Tunnel serves higher purposes.

Originally coming into existence from a 1992 referendum calling for a high-speed railway to be built through the Alps, in 1994, voters supported an additional measure from environmental groups to shift all freight volume from trucks to trains. Moving most of the large trucks from roadways would not only considerably reduce carbon emissions and cut down on the rate of fatal road crashes, but return the Alpine roadways to their picturesque selves.

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2. Economical, Ecological, Efficient

A signature of the New Rail Link through the Alps (NRLA), the Gotthard Base Tunnel traverses the Alps within 20 minutes. A hallmark of its efficiency ias its straight, mostly flat route. How straight?

The tunnel is 35.47 miles long and its geodesic distance between the two stations—Uri and Bodio—is 34.66 miles. This design allowed train cars to be extended from roughly 1,800 feet to over 2,400 feet. Longer trains mean fewer are needed to ship more goods, and faster.

Five freight trains run per hour on the Gotthard, and thanks to that beautiful straight line path under the Alps, freight is no longer subject to the temperamental Alp weather patterns. Trains stay on schedule, making overall costs are more predictable for all parties. Due to these unmatched benefits, the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) estimates a 20 percent increase in freight volume by 2020 in the Rotterdam-Genoa corridor, two essential hubs of European trade.

As Imogen Foulkes writes for the BBC ahead of the GTB’s opening in 2016:

“Today, Italian olive oil destined for the Netherlands or German cars for Greece all still have to cross the Alps. So too do many thousands of tonnes of goods from China or India: they may dock in Rotterdam, but their final destination could be Rome, Vienna or Zagreb.”

Too slow and overburdened with freight traffic, the Gotthard Railway line proudly cedes the task of facilitating trade in across Europe and with Asia while reducing emissions and streamlining shipping costs in the process.

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3. The Numbers

Like all great engineering projects, it took a lot of hands to build the Gotthard Base Tunnel — 5,200 hands, to be exact. Well, assuming all 2,600 workers had two hands. Constructing the GTB also required that giant quad of heavy-duty drilling machines. After all, more than 28 million tons of 73 different types of rock with consistencies that ranged from soft to brittle to solid were excavated to build the tunnel. Much of the suitable rock was recycled into the 4 million cubic meters of concrete, enough to fill the Empire state building 84 times.

And a true testament to GTB’s span is the fact that its south and north sides have an average temperature difference of 4–5 degrees Fahrenheit, varying on certain days by as much as 18 degrees Fahrenheit. The project, completed on time and within the $12.2 billion budget wasn’t completely flawless, however; nine men died during the tunnel’s construction. They are honored on a plaque at the north end of the tunnel.

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For its novel design, reduced ecological footprint, importance in world trade and convenience it’s bringing travelers around the globe, the Gotthard Base Tunnel is a hallmark example of how smart engineering infrastructure can merge convenience and economic growth without further jeopardizing the planet.

It’ll also go down as the engineering achievement with the most… inventive opening ceremony ever.

Sure makes a giant pair of gold scissors seem insignificant, eh?

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P.S.

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