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PICTURES: World's largest tunnel opens under the Swiss Alps

The 57-kilometre (35-mile) Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT) opened officially today.

SONY DSC Source: Hannes Ortlieb via Wikipedia

THE WORLD’s LONGEST tunnel officially opened today, with the trailblazing rail passage under the Swiss Alps aiming to ease transit through the heart of Europe.

With Europe’s political unity shaken by a massive migrant crisis and the looming threat of Britain’s EU exit, Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann said the tunnel would “join the people and the economies” of Europe.

He spoke as the first train made a ceremonial run through the 57-kilometre (35-mile) Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT) beneath the region’s spectacular mountain peaks, with European leaders on board.

Switzerland Railway Tunnel File Photo Source: AP

The tunnel took 17 years to build, at a cost of over 12 billion Swiss francs (€11 billion), with 125 labourers rotating in three shifts to lay the tunnel’s slab track in 43,800 hours of non-stop work, according to the Swiss rail service.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi were among the passengers on the first train today.

Switzerland Railway Tunnel German Chancellor Angela Merkel pictured on the opening day of the Gotthard rail tunnel Source: AP

Unity call

The trio sat together in a first-class carriage, along with Schneider-Ammann, and chatted over glasses of water through the 20-minute journey from Erstfeld in the central canton of Uri southward to Ticino canton.

Merkel told Swiss broadcaster ATS the network it was “marvellous” to think about taking a journey with 2000 metres of mountain rock above her head.

The tunnel was entirely funded by non-EU member Switzerland, but leaders from the bloc have hailed it for improving connectivity from Rotterdam to the Adriatic at a time when the continent’s divisions have dominated headlines.

Travel through the picturesque Alpine region, by rail or by road, requires taking a zigzag and undulating route.

Switzerland Railway Tunnel Source: AP/KEYSTONE/TI-PRESS

Light at the end of the tunnel

The Gotthard Base Tunnel was designed to offer a better option for both private travellers and commercial freights.

When the full service opens in December, the tunnel 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.

Switzerland Railway Tunnel n this June 16, 2009 file photo minors watch the tunnel drilling machine Gabi breaking through the last section of the AlpTransit New Railway Link through the Alps (NRLA) tunnel between Erstfeld and Amsteg, Switzerland. Source: AP

It should also make rail freight more efficient – partly by supporting heavier cargo, reducing the number of smoke-spewing lorries on the roads and in turn improving traffic and curbing pollution.

The number of daily rail passengers is expected to increase from the current rate of 9,000 people to 15,000 by 2020, according to the Swiss federal railway service.

The rough design for a rail tunnel under the Gotthard Pass was first sketched by Swiss engineer Carl Eduard Gruner in 1947.

But bureaucratic delays, concerns over the cost and other hurdles pushed back the start of construction until 1999.

Wednesday’s inauguration featured a ceremony with at times abstract choreography and elaborately costumed dancers, including an angel-type figure floating above orange-clad workers.

Switzerland Railway Tunnel Artists perform during the opening show directed by German director Volker Hesse. Source: AP/KEYSTONE

New machine

The Gotthard Tunnel was largely made possible by technical advances in tunnel-boring machines, which replaced the costly and dangerous blast-and-drill method.

The primary machine used to make the Gotthard tunnel was roughly 410-metres long and functioned like a mobile factory.

It cuts through rock and throws the debris backwards while simultaneously placing the pre-formed segments of concrete that form the shape of the tunnel.

A separate system grouts the pieces together.

With its official opening, the GBT has surpassed Japan’s 53.9-kilometre Seikan tunnel as the world’s longest train tunnel.

The 50.5-kilometre Channel Tunnel has been bumped into third place.

© – AFP, 2016

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