Switzerland has officially inaugurated the world’s longest tunnel under the Alps in a bid to ease trade and congestion in Europe.
The 57-kilometer (35.4 mile) Gotthard Railway Tunnel, a major engineering achievement deep under snow-capped peaks of the Swiss Alps, was inaugurated during a ceremony on Wednesday in Erstfeld in northern Switzerland.
Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann, along with top European leaders, was onboard the first train making a ceremonial run through the tunnel which bores deeper than any other tunnel in the world, running about 2.3 kilometers (1.4 miles) underground at its maximum depth..
“The new tunnel fits into the European railway freight corridor, which links Rotterdam and Genoa,” Schneider-Ammann stated.
“Aside from saving time, more merchandise can be carried through the Alps,” he said, adding that the tunnel will boost access “to these two important ports” in the Netherlands and Italy.
The Swiss leader also hinted at the benefits of the tunnel for the unity in European nations, saying it would “join the people and the economies” of Europe. Switzerland is no member to the European Union, but its massive funding over the past 17 years for the project has been hailed by EU leaders who see their unity much at risk amid the current refugee crisis and the threat of Britain’s exit from the 28-member body.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi were among the passengers and sat in a first-class carriage of the train along with Schneider-Ammann.
Merkel said it was “marvelous” to think about taking a journey with 2,000 meters of mountain rock above her head, adding that she had a “feeling of security because I believe in the security of the Swiss civil engineers.”
“We congratulate Switzerland because they were already so punctual, and also because the costs were kept within targets,” she said, adding, “That’s something Germany still needs to strive for.”
Hollande, for his part, spoke of unity in Europe, saying the tunnel shows the Europeans “are as united as we have ever been.”
He said the opening of the tunnel should remind the Britons of their closeness to Europe on the June 23 Brexit vote, drawing a parallel between the inauguration and the 1994 opening of the Channel Tunnel, which connected Paris and London by high-speed rail.
“I hope that the British will remember (that closeness) when the day comes” to cast their vote, Hollande said.
The construction of the tunnel, officially known as Gotthard Base Tunnel, started in 1999 although a first sketch was available by Swiss engineer Carl Eduard Gruner in 1947. The Swiss rail service says the structure cost some 43,800 hours of non-stop work with 125 laborers rotating in three shifts to lay the tunnel’s slab track. It ranks now as the world’s longest train tunnel above Japan’s 53.9-kilometer Seikan tunnel and the 50.5-kilometer Channel Tunnel.
With the full service available in December, the tunnel will take up to 260 freight trains and 65 passenger trains per day. It will shave the train journey from Zurich to Milan in northern Italy down to two hours and 40 minutes, roughly an hour less than it currently takes. Heavier cargo can also be transported through the train, making the rail freight more efficient and curbing pollution by smoke-spewing lorries on the roads.