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They may look stunning, but for Europeans, the Alps can be a real pain in the neck. Reaching to just under 16,000 feet, the mountain range forms a thick wall across the continent’s West and center, dividing countries and making much European long-distance travel laborious and slow. Nowadays, the mountains are of course breached by several major tunnels and highways, a network that has brought hitherto remote valleys within several hours’ journey of major cities. The Alps, nonetheless, still form a speed-slowing barrier between Southern and Northern Europe even today. Starting June 1st, however, that barrier should be considerably less impenetrable.
That’s because next month, Switzerland is opening the longest railway tunnel ever constructed. At a length of 35.5 miles, the new Gotthard Base Tunnelburrows deep beneath the mountains to connect Switzerland’s German- and Italian-speaking regions, ultimately linking the Swiss lowlands with the North Italian plain. It exceeds the length of its longest predecessor, Japan’s Seikan Tunnel, by a little over three kilometers (1.9 miles). Running at up to 8,000 feet below mountain peaks at times, it also runs deeper below ground level than any other tunnel yet built. So great is the amount of rock and rubble created by the excavation—over 28 million tons—that steep artificial hills have been created in the valleys at the tunnel’s mouth.
While the tunnel’s opening is a triumph, the sheer length of its gestation time shows the degree of commitment—and money—that major infrastructure works require. The tunnel was first approved in 1992 in a national referendum, a product of Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, which sees national votes held on many issues. Work began in 1996, and the actual drilling of the tunnels was only completed in 2011. The total cost to date: roughly
This article first appeared on www.citylab.com
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