GENEVA – A massive drilling machine called Sissi is about to chew through the last few inches of rock standing in the way of the creation of the world’s longest tunnel.
The expected completion today of the 35.4-mile Gotthard Base rail tunnel is being hailed as an environmental triumph as much as an unprecedented engineering feat.
The $10 billion tube bores through the Gotthard massif, including the 8,200-foot-tall Piz Vatgira, along the route to Italy. It’s part of a larger project to shift the haulage of goods from roads to rails, spurred mainly by a concern that heavy trucks were destroying Switzerland’s pristine Alpine landscape.
Swiss voters, who are paying more than $1,300 each to fund the project, approved its construction in a series of referendums almost 20 years ago and will have to wait several more before it is ready for traffic.
Conservationists say the money was worth spending even if after 23 years of construction it will only shave one hour off the time trains travel between northern Europe and Italy.
“The Swiss love their mountains,” said Thomas Brolli, a campaigner with the group Alpen-Initiative, which claimed a surprise victory in 1994 with a referendum to limit the number of heavy goods trucks allowed to cross the Alps each year to half the current load within two years of the tunnel’s opening.
Some 1.2 million trucks currently thunder through Switzerland’s mountainous countryside every year, harming rare plants and animals while adding to the erosion that is the Alps’ worst enemy.
With their beloved mountains crumbling, the Swiss decided that instead of simply stopping foreign trucks from passing through the country they would put their tunnel-building expertise to good use by completing a plan first conceived over 60 years ago.
When it is opened for traffic in 2017, the Gotthard Base Tunnel will supplant Japan’s 33.5-mile Seikan Tunnel as the world’s longest – excluding aqueducts – and allow millions more tons of goods to be transported through the Alps by rail.
Although Switzerland has weathered the financial crisis better than most of its neighbors, cost considerations might have tipped the scales had there not been a strong concern for the future of the mountains.
“I am full of admiration for the Swiss ability to combine a modern advanced economy with pristine Alpine beauty, even when it is expensive to do so,” said Jeffrey Frankel, an economics professor at Harvard. “I suspect no other country would have paid for this project.”
Some of the 459 million cubic feet of rock hewn from the mountain – enough to fill 13 Empire State buildings – are being used to restore Alpine lakes that were dredged for gravel.
And warm water, which flows deep under the mountains and can reach 122 degrees Fahrenheit, will be used to run fish farms, with one entrepreneur even hoping to provide Switzerland’s own source of sustainable caviar.