A subterranean cathedral

15 10 2010

This afternoon marked milestone in the geographic history of the Swiss Alps and Europe. Workers on one of the most ambitious construction projects ever attempted ground their way through the final couple of meters of rock to create the longest tunnel in the world.

Deep below the Gotthard massif, the AlpTransit tunnel will one day link northern and southern Europe in ways unimaginable just a century ago.


The very large power drill called "Sissi".


For some, this is a cathedral of engineering innovation, for others it’s just a great big expensive hole in the ground. Personally, I think I’m with the cathedral people.

The Gotthard Base Tunnel is a whopping 57 kilometers (36 miles) long. Planning for it began in the 1960’s, construction in the 1990s, and it is due to be completed in the year 2017. The two parallel tubes through the rock will house tracks that will carry high-speed trains from Zurich to Milan in under 3 hours, shaving more than an hour off the travel time between the two cities. It is an important new link in European north-south travel routes for passengers and cargo. The trains will be able to travel at speeds up to 200 kilometers per hour up to 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) below the highest peaks.

Since the beginning of time, the mountains were a natural boundary between north and south. In the past century or so, engineers have kept themselves busy trying to find ways through the mountains rather than having humanity continue to trudge over the mountains. Hannibal’s and Napoleon’s armies would have spared themselves a great deal of trouble if they’d had a tunnel or two, that’s for sure.

Don’t get me wrong, the passes over the Swiss Alps are all unbelievably spectacular and I don’t mind a little exercise now and then. Every single person should have the opportunity to cross at least one of them in their lifetime, be it on foot, horseback, skis, bicycle, rollerblades, motorcycle or some other vehicle. The views are simply breathtaking.

But in the winter they are all either closed or a serious pain in the butt to negotiate – no matter what your mode of transport (except airplane).

It is already well-known that Alps are as holey as a block of Swiss cheese – what with all those bunkers housing the world’s computer servers, gold bullion and atomic bomb shelters for a small percentage of the Swiss population. But this is actually a world record, folks. Never before has a tunnel of this magnitude and sophistication been planned and attempted anywhere on the planet.

And while the new tunnel is indeed a masterpiece of modern engineering, let’s just take a second to think about the sheer size of it. Would you want to travel from, say, Washington DC to downtown Baltimore, or clear across the city of London, two and a half kilometers below the surface? Isn’t it kind of dark and wet and hot down there?

I mean, just go ask a couple of Chilean miners what they think of tunnels.