A CONSTRUCTION project failing to meet the client's requirements is bad news anywhere. If the project is a world-first 57km railway tunnel under Europe's biggest mountain range, with all the associated installations - track, catenary, safety systems, signalling, communications, emergency installations, ventilation and power supplies - then failing to meet these basic needs is nothing short of a disaster.


To avoid this situation a project of this magnitude requires very close cooperation between the constructor and end user. In the case of the Gotthard base tunnel, AlpTransit Gotthard, the construction company, and Swiss Federal Railways SBB, the client and 100% stakeholder of AlpTransit, are making sure they do exactly this.

Jedelhauser SimoniSBB set up Project Organisation North-South Axis Gotthard (Pons) in 2011 to improve liaison between the two with the aim of seamlessly integrating the Gotthard into the existing network, as well as the 17km Ceneri base tunnel in 2020 and the 4m-piggyback freight corridor through Switzerland. "Pons was founded to make sure SBB is 100% ready to use the Gotthard base tunnel when it opens," explains Mr Peter Jedelhauser, Pons' project leader.

Jedelhauser is in charge of around 250 engineers and other experts throughout the company and one of the issues he faced was SBB personnel continuing to make changes to specifications while work was in progress. However, Dr Renzo Simoni, CEO of AlpTransit, took this in his stride. "There are no problems, just challenges," he says, with a smile.

Simoni has good reason to be pleased. The line was activated on October 1 and the first test took place on October 8. "This was the most important milestone since the breakthrough almost exactly five years before," Simoni says. The feat is all the more impressive given the original plan to open the tunnel a year later, in 2017. "The change was due to a gap in the schedule in one of AlpTransit's main contractors," he says. "So we seized the opportunity to push for the earlier date."

AlpTransit is currently almost half-way through around 3000 trial runs through the twin tunnels which are taking place 24-hours a day. Trial runs up to 275km/h, 10% above the tunnel's maximum design speed of 250km/h, were carried out in November and December 2015, and tests up to 250km/h should be completed by the end of April. Tests with freight trains are planned for February - April.

Personnel and rolling stock are rented from SBB, with the exception of a special ICE-S test train on loan from German Rail (DB). A special task force, based at the new control centre for the line at Pollegio between Arth-Goldau and Chiasso, is in control of testing.

"We have to prove that the tunnel functions efficiently and that all safety requirements are met," Simoni says. "Only under these conditions can we hand over a fully operational tunnel to the Swiss government and SBB. This will be safest part of the SBB network."

The tunnel will be formally handed over on June 1 at which point it will be SBB's turn to carry out its own operational tests, mostly with freight trains, before starting a full service initially with a maximum speed of 200km/h in December. A training programme is underway for 3300 personnel, including 1000 drivers, who are also learning to use ETCS Level 2, the only signalling system on the line.

As well as familiarising drivers with the new route, operating procedures have to be rehearsed. The first paths in each half-hour block are taken by high-speed passenger trains, followed by regional trains and then freight trains. Holding areas have been set up at each end of the tunnel for slower trains, with the last freight train vacating the main line at the end of the tunnel just before the first high-speed passenger train in the next batch comes through. "This has to be practiced," Jedelhauser says.

Journey times between Zürich and Milan will be cut from 4h 3min to 3h 30min when the Gotthard opens, and three hours when Ceneri opens in 2020. The aim, according to Jedelhauser, is to provide capacity for 260 freight trains and 80 passenger trains per day, with up to six freight trains and two passenger trains per hour, with headways down to as little as three minutes. "We don't anticipate all this new capacity will be used from day one, but expect it to be filled gradually by 2030 or so," Jedelhauser says. "We know freight in particular depends heavily on the economic situation."

Simoni agrees. "The capacity should not all be used up immediately - this project is designed for the next 100 years or so," he says. "If we'd waited till the need was there, they'd have said, prove you can cross the Alps, and then nothing would have happened. This way round is better. If the tunnel's there, they will use it, eventually."