THE Gotthard Base Tunnel was inaugurated by the president of the Swiss Federation Mr Johann Schneider-Ammann and federal transport minister Mrs Doris Leuthard on June 1 with simultaneous ceremonies at the northern and southern portals of the world's longest main line railway tunnel.

Gottardo2016 8The twin events were attended by six heads of state, including German chancellor Mrs Angela Merkel and French president Mr François Hollande, EU transport commissioner Mrs Violeta Bulc, and 1000 Swiss citizens who were selected at random from more than 160,000 applicants for an inaugural journey through the tunnel.

A second ceremony was held in the afternoon to mark the official transfer of control of the 57.1km tunnel from AlpTransit to Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), which will carry out intensive testing and training over the next five months in readiness for the start of commercial operations on December 11.

A number of special trains will also carry passengers through the tunnel during this phase and from September some scheduled passenger services will be diverted onto the new line from the mountain route. The first scheduled freight train passed through the tunnel on June 3.

The route for the New Rail Link through the Alps (NLRA) was finalised in 1995 and financing for the SFr 12.5bn ($US 13bn) project was secured in 1998. Initial preparatory works began at Sedrun in April 1996 and major construction started with the blasting of access shafts in 1999. The project involved the excavation of 151.8km of tunnels, shafts, and cross passages. Two emergency stations were constructed at Faido and Sedrun to aid evacuation of the tunnel.

Four tunnel boring machines were used to dig and line 97.1km of tunnel, including most of the two running tunnels.

AlpTransit awarded a contract to the Transtec Gotthard consortium for the installation of railway infrastructure in April 2008. This included 146km of track (115km ballastless) and 154km of overhead catenary, including 115km in the tunnel.

The ETCS Level 2 deployment involved the installation of 928 balises and 712 axle counters with a single radio block centre covering the entire length of the new line.

A new control centre at Pollegio at the southern end of the tunnel opened in 2014 and in addition to the tunnel this facility controls all rail movements in the canton of Ticino.

From December, 52 passenger trains and up to 210 freight trains will pass through the tunnel each day with up to four freight paths during the day (five at night) and two passenger paths per hour in each direction.

Leuthard told IRJ at the opening ceremony that the tunnel provides a strong basis for the expansion of rail's share of the transalpine freight market in line with the Swiss federal government's modal shift policy, but stressed that operators and infrastructure managers will need to work together closely at an international level if the sector is to capitalise on Swiss investment in the Gotthard. "It's important in transport policy to achieve greater cooperation and more customer-friendly service," she says. "The Rotterdam - Genoa corridor is symbolic of how the rail freight industry is working together. We are putting the infrastructure in place to help rail freight move ahead, but we also need to see cooperation."

Passenger services on the Gotthard route will be accelerated from December, when the 4h 3min Zürich - Milan journey time will be reduced by up to 25 minutes. The opening of the tunnel will enable the launch of a daily Zurich - Venice EC service and from December 2017 SBB plans to begin operating a new Frankfurt - Milan service in cooperation with Trenitalia and German Rail (DB) using SBB-owned, Alstom-built ETR610/RABe 503 Pendolino EMUs. The northbound services will be routed via Lötschberg Base Tunnel and Bern, returning south via Lucerne and the Gotthard Base tunnel.

The full potential of the Gotthard Base Tunnel will not be fully realised until 2020, when the SFr 3.3bn, 15.4km Ceneri Base Tunnel opens and SBB completes a SFr 940m gauge enhancement project which will enable the entire route between Basle and the Italian border to accommodate lorries with a corner height of 4m. The Ceneri Base Tunnel will also reduce Zürich - Milan journey times by a further 30 minutes and significantly accelerate regional services in the canton of Ticino.

With faster, more frequent services and the introduction of a new fleet of 250km/h Stadler Giruno inter-city trains, which will enter service from December 2019, SBB forecasts that passenger numbers on the Gotthard corridor will double by 2025.

The existing mountain route via Göschenen and Airolo, which is popular with tourists, will be retained and will continue to be used by an hourly regional passenger service as well as special trains and local freight workings.