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World's longest, deepest railway tunnel opens in Switzerland

Published 01/06/2016

The Gotthard Base tunnel is the world's longest train tunnel (Urs Flueeler/Keystone via AP)
The Gotthard Base tunnel is the world's longest train tunnel (Urs Flueeler/Keystone via AP)

The world's longest railway tunnel has been officially opened in Switzerland.

The leaders of France, Germany and Italy were in attendance at a ceremony on Wednesday to celebrate the completion of the 35.4-mile tunnel through the Alps.

It has taken 17 years to build at a cost of 12.2 billion Swiss francs (£8.4 billion).

The thoroughfare aims to cut travel times, ease road traffic and take cargo away from pollution-spewing lorries trucking between Europe's north and south.

Once it opens for commercial service in December, the two-way tunnel will take up to 260 freight trains and 65 passenger trains per day.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi came for a flashy celebration featuring musical bands, dancers and even a tunnel theme song.

The project, while cutting a north-south axis through central Switzerland, has received financial support and industrial know-how from around the European Union. Though Switzerland is not one of the bloc's 28 members, the EU railway network will get a major boost from the shortcut through the Alps, notably on the route from Germany to Italy.

"The new tunnel fits into the European railway freight corridor, which links Rotterdam and Genoa," said Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann.

He added that the tunnel will boost access "to these two important ports" in the Netherlands and Italy.

"Aside from saving time, more merchandise can be carried through the Alps," he said.

In a glitzy show under purple neon lights, performers dressed up in orange miners' suits and protective helmets danced on top of a moving rail car. Trapeze artists hung from chains or ropes, a band blared out a thumping military march and helicopters buzzed overhead.

The tunnel runs between the German-speaking Swiss town of Erstfeld in the north and Italian-speaking Bodio in the south. Split-screen TV images showed two trains in opposition directions entering and leaving the tunnel entrances nearly simultaneously on both ends.

A test run by the European leaders turned into a mini-summit: Mrs Merkel, Mr Renzi and Mr Hollande climbed on board in a first-class carriage for a ride through the tunnel, sitting alongside Schneider-Ammann.

A band played Rossini's William Tell Overture after they arrived.

Mrs Merkel said it was a "wonderful feeling" to be on the train. She did note that "more than 2,000 metres of rocks" were above but 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 added. "That's something Germany still needs to strive for."

At the peak of construction, as many as 2,400 workers took part in the project. The two holes were connected in October 2010, some 11 years after the first blast to build the tunnel, which took place in the last century.

In the tunnel, freight trains will run at up to 60 miles per hour, and passenger trains twice that at first. The tunnel is to shave 45 minutes off the trip from Zurich to Lugano, Switzerland.

Guy Parmelin, the Swiss minister of defence and civil protection, told national television that the tunnel gives his country a chance to display its "know-how" and show "when Switzerland takes on a commitment, it keeps it".

Forces under Mr Parmelin's command were taking little chance with security for the inauguration. Almost 2,000 additional Swiss troops were called in to help keep watch this week, and air space restrictions were put in place in the area.

The Gotthard Base Tunnel eclipses Japan's 33.4-mile Seikan Tunnel as the world's longest and burrows deeper - 1.4 miles - than any other rail tunnel.

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