The 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 chosen at random from more than 160,000 applicants for an inaugural journey through the tunnel.
A second handover 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 193 days in preparation for the start of full commercial operations.
During the commissioning phase SBB will operate up to 5000 trains, most of them freight trains, through the tunnel before the start of full 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.
By the time this phase concludes, 3900 staff including 1000 drivers will have received training in the tunnel.
The route for the New Rail Link through the Alps (NLRA) was finalised in 1995 and financing for the €11.1bn project was finally 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 built 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. In order to fully exploit this capacity the speed of freight trains in the tunnel will be at least 100km/h while passenger trains will operate at up to 200km/h.
The impact of the tunnel on transalpine freight operations will be significant. The transit time between the German frontier at Basle and Bellinzona will be reduced to just 3h 45min, which means it will be possible for one driver to make a return trip between these two hubs in a single shift. With the tunnel bypassing the severe gradients of the original mountain route, only one locomotive will be required to haul a 1600-tonne train to Bellinzona or Luino. The completion of the tunnel will also enable the operation of 750m-long trains.
However, the full potential of the tunnel on freight traffic will only be realised in 2020 with the opening of the 15.4km Ceneri Base Tunnel - further reducing transit times and enabling the operation of 2000-tonne trains - and the completion of an SFr 940m project to upgrade the Gotthard route to accommodate lorry semitrailers with a corner height of 4m.
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 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 and a new Zürich - Venice service will be launched. The completion of the Ceneri Base Tunnel in 2020 will reduce travel times on the Zürich - Milan corridor by a further 30 minutes.
With reduced journey times and the introduction of SBB's new fleet of Stadler Giruno trains, which will enter service from 2019, SBB forecasts that passenger numbers on the Gotthard corridor will double by 2025.
The existing mountain route via Göschenen and Airolo will be retained and will continue to be used by an hourly regional passenger service as well as local freight workings. The line will also act as a diversionary route for passenger trains if the tunnel is closed, although freight trains would need to be diverted via the Lötschberg route.