Swiss finish drilling world's longest overland tunnel

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Sunday, May 1, 2005

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Eleven years of drilling and blasting using a total 16 tons of explosives were completed Thursday when Swiss engineers detonated the last few yards of granite completing the 21 mile (35 km) Lötschberg tunnel in the Alps. The Lötschberg is now the longest overland tunnel in the world, and the third longest tunnel overall.

"With the breakthrough we have carved out the mountain for all to see. We are moving on," said Swiss Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger at a ceremony marking the occasion, attended by about 1,000 people who witnessed the event in the midpoint of the tunnel, about 5,900 feet below the 12,170 foot Balmhorn mountain.

The two halves of the tunnel met with almost perfect exactness. The centers of the bores coming from opposite directions were only about 5 inches apart, and the heights were aligned within less than 1 inch.

The new tunnel connects the Swiss district of Raron with the city of Frutigen, near the capital Bern. Construction on the railway within the new tunnel is expected to be completed by 2007, and should shorten travel time between Germany and the Italian city of Milan by about an hour. The cost of building the tunnel, at US$13 billion (€10 billion) has already overrun budget by US$3 billion, and 11 people died during its construction.

The only two tunnels that are longer than Lötschberg are:

  • The Seikan Tunnel, Japan's tunnel between the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido which passes part of the way underneath the seabed, and is the longest railway tunnel in the world at about 33 miles (54 km).
  • The Channel Tunnel, once nicknamed the "Chunnel", which is the second longest at 31 miles (50 km), extending from Kent, England under the English Channel to northern France.

The Lötschberg tunnel is the longest tunnel that travels entirely over land, surpassing the previous record-holder, Japan's Hakkoda tunnel, which was completed only two months ago on February 27 at a length of 16 miles (26 km).

At least one future tunnel, Gotthard Base Tunnel, is planned to be the world's new longest tunnel at a length of 35 miles (57 km); it is also currently under construction in Switzerland, parallel to the Lötschberg with a planned completion date of 2012.

Swiss people make large numbers of train trips compared to other Europeans, with an average of 40 trips per person annually compared to 21 in Germany, 14 in France, and 8 in Italy. A major goal of the ongoing rail tunnel construction is to decrease travel times between popular destinations, with the state-owned Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) predicting a 20% increase in rail traffic by 2020.

Also under consideration are improvement of the rapidly growing crowding of traffic (particularly heavy trucks carrying cargo) in the narrow Swiss highways, auto accidents, and pollution. Since 1980, Swiss highway traffic has increased tenfold, largely due to its geographical position along Europe's north-south axis.

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