Switzerland: a NEAT boring nation

October 14, 2010, 2 Comments


The dramatic rescue of the Chilean miners this week has rather overshadowed the big tunnelling event in Switzerland. This one might lack the same  urgency but it will also be shown live on television, though most likely only for a domestic audience. For while the Swiss love a good tunnel, the rest of the world probably won’t be so excited about the final breakthrough in the Gotthard Base Tunnel. Shame, because it’s quite an achievement.

After 50 years of planning and nearly seven of drilling, the Neue Eisenbahn-Alpentransversale (NEAT), or in English the New Rail Link through the Alps (NRLA), is nearing its final stages of construction. Today at 14:00 (yes, it’s that precise) the giant drill called Sissi will bore through the last 1.8 metres of rock in front of a live audience. And the world’s longest rail tunnel will be born. Of course it won’t be operational just yet (that comes in 2016) but the boring bit will be over. So a few NEAT facts for you:

  • at 57km long the eastern tunnel is 7km longer than the Channel Tunnel
  • the total length of tunnels and shafts will be 152km
  • the two main tunnels are connected every 180m by galleries for evacuation
  • the giant drill is 415m long, 9.54m wide, weighs 2700 tonnes and bores 50m a day
  • 24 million tonnes of rock (or five times the size of the Great Pyramid) have been excavated and recycled to make concrete or gravel
  • at its deepest point, the tunnel is 2300m underground
  • passenger trains will travel at up to 250km/h, cutting an hour off the Zurich-Milan trip
  • double the amount of freight (40 million tonnes a year) will go through the new tunnels
  • the flat tunnel bed has a highest point of 550m, far less than the current 1150m
  • eight workers have died during the construction
  • total cost is 9.8 billion Swiss francs

It’s all very different from the current Gotthard Rail Tunnel, which opened in 1882. That is a mere 15km long but still took eleven years to build, at the cost of 199 miners’ lives. Ever since that great achievement, the Swiss have been the most boring nation on earth, liking nothing better than a new tunnel to straighten out the kinks in their transport network. And every new tunnel prompts a party.

The completion of the motorway tunnel under Zurich was marked by weekend-long festivities, with thousands walking, cycling, skateboarding and jogging down underground. And the opening of the 34-kilometre Lötschberg train tunnel under the Bernese Alps was an event in itself, where bands played and tickets to be the first to ride through the tunnel sold out well before the day. The tracks were even blessed (by Catholic and Protestant churchmen, just to be safe) and that was in addition to having been protected by St Barbara, the patron saint of tunnellers, who always gets a little shrine in every Swiss tunnel works. Heaven knows how big the party will be when NEAT finally opens in six years.


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