Switzerland is the land of the Alps, whose challenging geography means there are lots of tunnels. The Alpine nation can’t boast of having the world’s first road tunnel or the longest.
Those titles belong to the UK and Norway respectively. But Swiss scientists and engineers have conquered her rough and tough landscape and made road travel easier and faster than mountain passes alone with hundreds of tunnels covering a distance of more than 2,000 kilometers.
Let’s explore the history of tunnels in Switzerland and the country’s most noteworthy.
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History of Tunnels in Switzerland
The fantasy of boring through the Alps became a fantasy beginning in the 1850s. Scientists and engineers from universities in cities around the Alps competed and cooperated to find a solution to “open up” the Alps. Political motivation and the desire to increase commerce drove the succession of tunnel projects in the Alps. The projects benefited from the spread of advances in technology and scientists across Europe to intensify the process.
For example, scientists from universities in Sardinia researched the use of the force of compressed air to invent the compressed air drill. They are credited with the idea of using a ram compressor that use waterfalls to function so that drills could carve out blast holes in galleries. This new technique in tunneling was implemented in 1861. For the first time, tunneling could be carried out in a straight line from end to end. Dual slopes for water runoff helped to avoid calculation errors.
Still, since digging conditions were different in various places, engineers had to adapt the drills. A pneumatic process was developed for the machine. However, neither the improved drill nor the use of dynamite instead of gunpowder made it possible to honor a completion contract of eight years between the Gotthard Railway Company and the managing tunneling company.
The huge delay and fines incurred led to debates among engineers in specialized reviews. Mine-building remained the major method used, but debates created a desire to revamp the construction of tunnels into a scientific process of its own.
These early tunnels became symbols of progress and attracted the attention of specialists in science and technology from around the world. Geologists were especially interested in the diversity of the extracted rocks, and museums of geology were even set up.
As tunnels continued to be built, gigantic pipes running out of compression buildings and the throng of surrounding workers at the sites became curiosities. Once the tunnels were open for use, tourist guides were published with descriptions of the rugged and sometimes violent conditions.
Famous Tunnels in Switzerland
Gotthard Base Tunnel
The Swiss are especially proud of the Gotthard Base Tunnel. With a total length of 57 kilometers (35 miles) and stretching from Erstfeld in the north and Bodio in the south, it’s the longest railway tunnel in the country. It has a maximum depth of 2,300 meters (7,546 feet) making it an outstanding feat of modern engineering. The GBT is a base tunnel meaning that it runs through the base of the mountains rather than over the rough terrain.
The project formally began in 1992 and its lengthy construction provided jobs for hundreds of workers at four bases who had their own living quarters and cafeterias. A fifth site was added later. Nine workers died during construction. After 17 years, completed on schedule and within the budget of 12.2 billion Swiss francs, an extravagant opening ceremony was held on June 1, 2016, and attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.
Today, two passenger trains and four to six freight trains pass through the tunnel per hour in each direction. The tunnel reduces travel time from Zurich to Milan, Italy by one hour.
Lötschberg Base Tunnel
Almost as impressive as the GBT, the Lötschberg Base Tunnel was constructed to replace the original 14.6-kilometer long original tunnel. Built at around 400 meters lower than the old tunnel, it provides a more level and efficient route through the Alpin Massif and creates a mixed-use high-speed railway. It has a length of 34.57 kilometers (21.48 miles) long and runs between Frutigen, Berne, and Raron, Valais.
Test drilling began in 1991 and construction was started in 1999 using a combination of drilling, blasting, and tunnel-boring machines. To shorten the project, construction was carried out at five sites and included the 2.6-kilometer-long Engstlige Tunnel created by a process known as cut and cover.
The opening ceremony was held in June of 2007 and the first trains began operating the following December. Just a few years after opening, the single-track 21-kilometer-long section became saturated. A second bore was needed to increase its capacity. A planning contract was awarded for a second track in 2016 and presented in early 2019 at an estimated cost of 1 billion Swiss francs. A decision on the completion of a second track is expected in 2023.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many tunnels does Switzerland have?
Switzerland has around 1,300 tunnels with a total length of more than 2,000 kilometers.
Why is Switzerland known for its tunnels?
About 60 percent of Switzerland is covered by the massive mountains of the Alps. In planning highways and railroads, the Swiss have defeated obstacles literally the size of the mountains while hiding urban traffic underground and reducing the length of roadways.