After 17 years of construction, the Gotthard Base Tunnel opens today. This feat of engineering is a 35-mile high-speed rail connection beneath the Swiss Alps and is now the longest transit tunnel in the world. You better believe that Hyperloop engineers are paying attention.
The Gotthard Base Tunnel is actually several tunnels—about 94 miles total—burrowing deep below the gargantuan Gotthard range near the Italian border. In addition to two tunnels that allow travel in either direction, there are also a network of tunnels just for ventilation (otherwise temperatures inside could reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit). The terrain required four tunnel boring machines (TBMs) to chew through all that rock, which has been described by geologists as some of the most unpredictable in the world. The project was extremely dangerous, and nine workers have died in the tunnel since construction began.
In addition to being the longest—Japan’s Seikan Tunnel is just a few miles shorter—the tunnel plunges through the mountain range at a steady 1,650 feet above sea level, which makes it the “deepest” on Earth. But this consistent depth of about 1.5 miles below the Alpine peaks also represents another technological achievement that will improve the tunnel’s performance. If the track stays at the same elevation the entire time it’s underground, trains can travel at the same high speed through the tunnel.
The challenge to build a very long, very straight tunnel is the same challenge that Hyperloop’s designers are facing—which is exactly why one Hyperloop startup is partnering with Swiss tunnel designers and collaborating with the Swiss government on a cargo system.
When passenger service begins in December, trains will be able to zip through the tunnel at an astounding 155 mph, which means those traveling from Zurich to Milan will arrive at their destinations in an impressive two-and-a-half hours instead of four.
Right now, passengers face two much slower options. The “panoramic” route uses either a short, 200-year-old rail tunnel or the 10-mile Gotthard Road Tunnel that was completed in 1980. The hope is that a faster rail connection will entice drivers to leave their cars at home. But the bigger problem, both environmentally and economically, is all the trucks that are carrying goods in either direction. This kind of high-speed rail tunnel will now allow freight to travel much more efficiently to Switzerland and beyond. The plan is to eventually have a single high-speed link connecting ports in Netherlands and Italy.
In addition to the cutting of a large red ribbon at the tunnel’s opening ceremonies, there was a modern dance performance that took place at the tunnel’s entrance today.
Among the Eyes Wide Shut-inspired images from the performance is a topless masked woman flitting around the tunnel with feathery wings.
Surely these men are taking photos of the exquisite infrastructural triumph that will keep Switzerland’s trains running on time.