Regular rail service through the world’s longest tunnel – Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT) – began carrying passengers deep under the Swiss Alps from Zurich to Lugano. The famed GBT had a ceremonial opening in June, attracting European leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande for its maiden ride.
The Swiss national rail service (SBB) had announced that this regular rail service would mark the start of normal commercial traffic through the 57 km GBT, which took 17 years to build, at a cost of over CHF 12 billion (EUR 11.2 billion). It is the world’s longest and deepest traffic tunnel and the first flat, low-level route through the Alps.
The first regular passenger train to use the GBT pulled out of Zurich at 6:09 am (0509 GMT) and arrived in Lugano at 8:17 am, with the tunnel passage shaving a full 30 minutes off the previous travel time for the same route.
“It’s Christmas,” said SBB Chief Andreas Meyer after the journey was over. The ambitious GBT project has won praise across Europe for its pioneering efforts to improve connectivity from Rotterdam to the Adriatic. The main purpose of the Gotthard Base Tunnel is to increase local transport capacity through the Alpine barrier, especially for freight, notably on the Rotterdam–Basel–Genoa corridor, and more specifically to shift freight volumes from trucks to freight trains. This not only significantly reduces the danger of fatal road crashes involving trucks, but also reduces the environmental damage caused by the ever-increasing amount of freight hauled by heavy trucks. The tunnel provides a faster connection between the canton of Ticino and the rest of Switzerland, as well as between northern and southern Europe, cutting the Zurich–Lugano–Milan journey time for passenger trains by one hour.
Replacing the costly and dangerous blast-and-drill method, the tunnel was largely made possible by technical advances in tunnel-boring machines. The GBT has surpassed Japan’s 53.9 km Seikan tunnel as the world’s longest train tunnel, and the 50.5 km Channel Tunnel connecting Britain and France has been bumped into third place.