switzerland tunel.jpg
Photograph: EPA/ALEXANDRA WEY

Celebrations to inaugurate the world's longest railway tunnel under the Swiss Alps started Wednesday as Christian, Muslim and Jewish clerics blessed the 57-kilometre tube.

The Gotthard Base Tunnel in central Switzerland, which cost 12.2 billion Swiss francs (12.3 billion dollars), was designed to boost environmentally friendly cargo traffic on rails across the Alps and to better connect industrial hubs in northern and southern Europe.

It took 17 years to build the structure which replaces Japan's 53.9-kilometre Seikan Tunnel between Japan's Honshu and Hokkaido islands as the world's longest rail tunnel.

The guest list of the opening ceremony included the leaders from neighbouring countries: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern.

The first two trains that will cross underneath the Saint-Gotthard mountain range in the early afternoon will carry 1,000 ordinary citizens, in a symbolic gesture to the Swiss taxpayers who footed the bill for this project.

National Swiss railways SBB plans to open the tunnel for regular rail traffic on December 11, after conducting final test drives over the coming months.

Although Switzerland has finished the Gotthard tunnel, it will not be used at full capacity for years, as Italy and Germany have yet to complete railway infrastructure projects on routes feeding into Switzerland.

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