A massive drilling machine called is about to chew through the last few inches of rock standing in the way of the creation of the world's longest tunnel.
Published: 7:00AM BST 15 Oct 2010
A worker taking a break in the shaft of the gate still to be built at the track change between the two tunnels in the Gotthard Base Tunnel's "Faido" sectionPhoto: AP
The expected completion of the 35.4-mile Gotthard Base rail tunnel in Switzerland is being hailed as an environmental triumph as much as an unprecedented engineering feat.
The $10 billion tunnel bores through the Gotthard massif, including the 8200-foot Piz Vatgira, along the route to Italy. It's part of a larger project to shift the haulage of goods from roads to rails, spurred mainly by a concern that heavy trucks were destroying Switzerland's pristine Alpine landscape.
Swiss voters, who are paying over $1,300 (£813) each to fund the project, approved its construction in a series of referendums almost 20 years ago and will have to wait several more before it is ready for rail traffic.
Conservationists say the money was worth spending even if after 23 years of construction it will only shave one hour off the time trains travel between northern Europe and Italy.
"The Swiss love their mountains," said Thomas Brolli. The former journalist is a campaigner with the group Alpen-Initiative, which claimed a surprise victory in 1994 with a referendum to limit the number of heavy goods trucks allowed to cross the Alps each year to 650,000 - halving the current load - within two years of the tunnel's opening.
"Every Swiss has a link to the Alps, whether they were born there or go there on holiday," said Mr Brolli.
Some 1.2 million trucks currently thunder through Switzerland's mountainous countryside every year, harming rare plants and animals while adding to the erosion that is the Alps' worst enemy.
With their beloved mountains crumbling, the Swiss decided that instead of simply stopping foreign trucks from passing through the country they would put their tunnel-building expertise to good use by completing a plan first conceived over 60 years ago.
When it is opened for traffic in 2017, the Gotthard Base Tunnel will supplant Japan's 33-mile Seikan Tunnel as the world's longest - excluding aqueducts - and allow millions more tons of goods to be transported quickly through the Alps by rail.