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Breakthrough on the Loetschberg tunnel, April 2005: meeting of workers from Cantons Bern and Valais (in new window)

Breakthrough on the Loetschberg tunnel, April 2005: meeting of workers from Cantons Bern and Valais©

Tunnel construction at Faido on the Gotthard base line (in new window)

Tunnel construction at Faido on the Gotthard base line© AlpTransit Gotthard AG

A few years ago, perhaps no-one would have believed that it would be faster to cross Europe by rail than by air.

A network of high-speed rail lines is springing up all over western Europe. Train travel has many advantages. Unlike airports, stations are normally in city centres. Travellers need not set aside extra time to get there; check-in is usually much faster than for planes. And trains are rarely held up or diverted as a result of bad weather.

It is in this context that the Swiss, inveterate tunnel builders, have embarked on the New Railway Link through the Alps, as it is officially called in English, also known by its German acronym, NEAT or as AlpTransit. At the heart of the project are two "base" tunnels, the Lötschberg, (34.6 km/21.5 miles) and the St Gotthard (57 km/35.5 miles). Because they go through the base of the mountain and do not need to climb, the line can be much straighter than in the current tunnels where they are forced into curves and switch backs in order to gain the height to reach the entrance. The Gotthard base tunnel, long as it is, will cut 40 km (25 miles) from the total journey between Altdorf in the canton of Uri and Biasca in the canton of Ticino. The tunnels will link up with high-speed lines in Switzerland and beyond, ensuring that the country remains a key element in north-south traffic.

Amid much fanfare, the Lötschberg base tunnel was finally opened on 9 December 2007. The journey between Zurich and Valais now takes only two hours, a full 60 minutes shorter than before.

The longer Gotthard base tunnel is set to open in 2016. But this will not be the end of construction work. There are plans to build more tunnels, for example between Vigana, south of Bellinzona, and Vezia, north of Lugano.

The NEAT and the "Rail 2000" programme have dramatically shortened journey times between major cities. Not only have they reduced the number of kilometres travelled, but they have led to the construction of railway lines compatible with high-speed international trains, like the German ICE or French TGV. Passenger trains can now travel through at 250 kph (155 mph).

The NEAT will also contribute to Switzerland's ongoing effort to ease congestion on the roads. The NEAT is expected to take 90% of the goods in transit through Switzerland. Because the line is almost flat, goods trains can be twice as heavy and go faster as those which have to climb to today's tunnels.

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