At a time of rising nationalism and closing borders, European leaders will also hope it can serve as a reminder that the continent can still smash barriers when it manages to pull together.
It is no coincidence that the German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president François Hollande and Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi have found the time to join Swiss president Johann Schneider-Ammann for Wednesday’s maiden voyage through the rail tunnel, which contains a 152km labyrinth of galleries, cross passages and shafts and has taken 17 years to complete.
Festivities with 1,200 invited guests, expected to cost about €8m, will mark the opening of the rail tunnel, which will be mainly used for further test journeys until commencing regular service in December 2016.
Once fully functional, the tunnel will not just slice 45 minutes off the journey time between Zurich and Lugano, but also form a central building block of the so-called Rhine-Alp corridor that stretches from the Dutch sea ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp via Germany’s industrial heartland down to the port of Genoa inItaly.
The new Gotthard base tunnel, which has been in planning since the 1980s, will bypass the old Gotthardbahn rail tunnel, which rises and falls through the massif in a winding route. Unlike its predecessor, which was completed in 1882, the new line will run on a flat low-level route, the first of its kind in the Alps.
Four giant drill heads were used to cut a path through the mountain range. In the process, almost 30m tonnes of rock and soil were transported from the massif’s inner core to the surface via a giant purpose-built lift.
At 57km, the Gotthard base tunnel is 3km longer than the world’s current record-holder, the Seikan rail tunnel that links Japan’s two largest islands, Honshu and Hokkaido, and 7km longer than the Channel tunnel that connects England and France.
Whether Switzerland will be able to hold on to its title for long is questionable. The Chinese government plans to build a tunnel underneath the Bohai straitsmeasuring 123km – more than twice the length of the Gotthard base tunnel – to reduce journey times between the port cities of Dalian and Yantai from eight hours to 45 minutes.
In Europe, the next alpine mega-tunnelling project is in progress, with a 55km tunnel underneath the Brenner designed to connect Innsbruck in Austria and Bolzano in Italy. A proposed 80km underground train link connecting Helsinki in Finland and Tallin in Estonia is awaiting approval.
In Switzerland, the hope is that the Gotthard base tunnel will not only boost the trade route between northern and southern Europe but also shift alpine traffic from road to rail and reduce CO2 emissions, thus helping to protect the ecosystem. Sixty-five per cent of the project’s construction costs were funded by a tax on heavy duty vehicles, of which about 3,600 used the old tunnel on an average day.
As a symbol of cross-border cooperation, the Gotthard tunnel may only be able to ward off the spirits of populist nationalism for so long: according to recent reports in the Swiss media, politicians are expected to use the grand occasion, coming just weeks before the British referendum on EU membership, to rally support for measures to curb immigration.
“We can show that Switzerland is a reliable partner for Brussels and the whole of Europe, more reliable even than some of its member states,” the president of the Christian Democratic party told Neue Zürcher Zeitung. “We keep our promises, and we put our money where our mouth is.”
Relations between Switzerland and the European Union were put under strain two years ago when the country voted to introduce quotas for immigration from EU countries. Negotiations on whether Swiss measures, such as an “emergency break” on immigration in exceptional circumstances, were put on hold in the run-up to the British referendum.
Following Switzerland’s constitution, the outcome of its immigration referendum result has to be implemented by February 2017 – three years after the vote was held.
Facts and figures
The Gotthard base tunnel is 57km and in some places 2.3km from the surface. Without ventilation, the temperature inside the tunnel system is 46C (115F). The project took 17 years to build and cost 12.2bn Swiss francs. Teams excavated 28.2m tonnes of rock in the process. Trains will be able to cross the Gotthard massif at a maximum speed of 250km/h, taking about 20 minutes. The tunnel will allow 260 freight trains to pass through the tunnel every day, as opposed to 180 in the old tunnel.