switzerland tunel.jpg
Photograph: EPA/ALEXANDRA WEY

While Matterhorn's peak may be more beautiful, the Saint-Gotthard Massif mountain range in central Switzerland holds more meaning for many of the country's residents.

"There is no Switzerland without the Gotthard," goes a saying in the country, which has profited from cross-European trade for centuries.

Since a group of builders first surmounted a gorge in these mountains with a wooden bridge in the 13th century, the Gotthard has become a main transit route connecting the North Sea and the Mediterranean.

On Wednesday, Switzerland will open the world's longest railway tunnel beneath the Gotthard, promising shorter transport times to travellers and cargo companies alike.

At 57 kilometres, the Gotthard Base Tunnel will snatch the world record from Japan's 53.9-kilometre Seikan Tunnel, which connects the main island Honshu with the northern island Hokkaido.

Public celebrations spanning several days are planned in conjunction with the tunnel's opening, and the Swiss have good reason to abandon their usual reserve for this occasion: its engineers accomplished the feat a year ahead of time and without any major budget overruns.

The tunnel alone cost 12.2 billion Swiss francs (12.3 billion dollars) to build, and the entire project, including additional tunnels and the railway infrastructure, will amount to 23 billion francs once it is completed in 2020.

The Alpine tunnel was decided upon in late 1998 through a referendum, with nearly 64 per cent of voters supporting the plan. And in keeping with the project's democratic nature, the first train to be driven through the new tunnel on June 1 will not be carrying politicians or celebrities, but hundreds of ordinary citizens who won a lottery.

A train carrying political leaders from Switzerland and abroad is scheduled to follow, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi expected among the guests.

However, regular train service is not expected to start until shortly before Christmas. Until then, some 3,000 test drives are scheduled through the tunnel.

The new connection will shorten the ride between the German-speaking city of Zurich and the Italian-speaking city of Lugano to roughly two hours - shaving 45 minutes off the current travel time. This reduction signifies a major improvement in a country where inhabitants on average travel 2,300 kilometres by train every year.

The economic effects are also expected to be significant.

The new tunnel will be able to accommodate 260 freight trains each day once it replaces a shorter existing tunnel in the region that has a daily capacity of only 180. The amount of cargo that can be hauled beneath the Gotthard is also expected to double from its current level of 1 billion tons by 2030.

Ruediger Grube, chief executive of Germany's Deutsche Bahn national railway, said the Gotthard project is an "important milestone in the development of European rail traffic."

However, because it will take years to boost the capacity of routes in Italy, Switzerland and Germany that will end up as feeder trains into the Gotthard, the gains will not be immediately felt.

"We did not get through with planning in Germany. We are behind on our schedule," said German Transport Ministry official Hugo Gratza.

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