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The Gotthard Railway: 125 years of excellence

Posted: 30 July 2007 | | No comments yet

The railway line traversing the Gotthard massif is a vital artery through Switzerland. In 2007, the Gotthard Railway will be celebrating its 125th anniversary. During the past few decades, the line has been consistently modernised and adapted to the needs of today’s traffic. In a few years’ time, the existing route will be superseded by a new base tunnel that promises to bring north and south even closer together than before.

The railway line traversing the Gotthard massif is a vital artery through Switzerland. In 2007, the Gotthard Railway will be celebrating its 125th anniversary. During the past few decades, the line has been consistently modernised and adapted to the needs of today’s traffic. In a few years’ time, the existing route will be superseded by a new base tunnel that promises to bring north and south even closer together than before.

The railway line traversing the Gotthard massif is a vital artery through Switzerland. In 2007, the Gotthard Railway will be celebrating its 125th anniversary. During the past few decades, the line has been consistently modernised and adapted to the needs of today’s traffic. In a few years’ time, the existing route will be superseded by a new base tunnel that promises to bring north and south even closer together than before.

Just one decade from now, trains crossing the Gotthard will enter the new Base Tunnel at either Erstfeld or Biasca – to the delight of both travellers and freight forwarders alike. Not only will their journeys be shorter, but the existence of a transalpine route with virtually no gradient at all will give railfreight forwarders a decisive advantage over their competitors on the roads.

The Gotthard Base Tunnel will form the core of a new high-speed line connecting the north and south – a tour de force of engineering that can boast just as many superlatives as could the original Gotthard line when it first opened all those years ago. Thanks to the imagination of its pioneers, the Gotthard Railway was designed as a two-track line with only moderate gradients right from the start. Today’s Base Tunnel is also being designed not just for the next generation, but the generation after that as well. There are parallels in the financing too: the budgets for both projects proved overly optimistic. Besides necessitating top-up loans and downscaling, this triggered a flurry of complaints about construction costs, contracting and equipment quality.

However, there is a crucial difference between the two projects. Whereas in the nineteenth century, Switzerland’s neighbours helped finance the new transalpine link through ‘neutral territory’. But the financing of today’s Base Tunnel is an exclusively Helvetian affair.

The fascination of the Gotthard

Countless films have been made and numerous books and newspaper articles written about the planning and construction of the new Base Tunnel as well as the heated parliamentary debates and two nationwide referendums that preceded it. As is always the case with projects of this scale, the Gotthard Base Tunnel had to take numerous hurdles before the first tunnelling machines could be manoeuvred into position on the rock face. Since then, however, more than two thirds of the 150km of tunnels and galleries required for this project have been dug and it will not be long before the installation of railway infrastructure gets under way.

Planning ahead has always been crucial on the Gotthard, which is why even now, some ten years before the new Base Tunnel is due to open, the inhabitants of the Gotthard region – and not just them – are beginning to wonder what is to become of the old line. What these discussions have also made clear is that the ‘classic’ Gotthard has lost none of its original fascination. Not that this line, which after endless political wrangling finally commenced operations in 1882, was the first transalpine rail link. The Semmering line had opened 28 years earlier and trains were already running on the Brenner and Mont Cenis lines. Nor did Europe’s fourth transalpine railway have to climb higher than the others: The highest is the Brenner line at 1,370m, followed by Mont Cenis at 1,298m, the Lötschberg at 1,240m and only then – again in fourth place – the Gotthard at 1,151m.

The high art of civil engineering

So what is it about the 90km transalpine section of the Gotthard line that has given it such a legendary reputation, earning it the misty-eyed veneration of railway enthusiasts the world over?

Perhaps it has to do with the courage that went into its planning, the daring that went into its construction and the way in which it blends in perfectly with the breathtakingly beautiful landscape all around. Its fascination is such that no one can be left cold by it. And if for no other reason, the fact that much of today’s rail traffic between northern and southern Europe still makes use of a line built more than a century ago undoubtedly accords the Gotthard the status of a cultural achievement of world-class standing. Not even the most outspoken prophets would have predicted when the Gotthard line was first planned that it would still form a vital link between the economies of northern and southern Europe 125 years after it was first commissioned.

Eighteen million net tonnes

Approximately 18 million net tonnes of freight – nearly half of all transalpine railfreight – is transported over the Gotthard every year. And on an average day, some 10,000 passengers cross the Alps using this route and, as they snake their way up the mountainside, they glance down to see the line they were on just a few minutes ago – and then they look up to get a glimpse of what is in store for them next. The ‘spiral staircase of world transit’ – as railway enthusiasts like to call it!

32 tunnels, 13 viaducts

The incline begins just after the last set of points at Erstfeld station, where the tracks suddenly begin to climb. Over the next 29 kilometres to Göschenen, trains have to gain a total of 634 metres before plunging into the 15km tunnel, at the middle of which is the line’s summit. Once on the other side, they can trundle down the 50km descent to Biasca, having passed through 32 tunnels and crossed 13 viaducts. Travellers heading south pass from German-speaking Switzerland into the Italian-speaking part of the country. This crossing of a cultural boundary is also part of the Gotthard myth.

Natural hazards and defences

In the 125 years since the Gotthard Railway was first opened, the traffic using it has increased enormously, making it one of the most heavily used routes across the Alps. The line was electrified in 1922. Whereas in its infancy, the Gotthard line had to cope with no more than a dozen or so steam-hauled trains every day. These days, it is a very different story and the line has to handle some 250 trains every day of the year – which makes safety all the more important.

Maintaining the safety of the line would be impossible without the hard work and dedication of hundreds of railway employees. Foresters plant trees to prevent soil erosion on the hillsides, while geologists are needed to make sure the overhanging rockfaces are safe. Countless conduits are needed to channel the water running off the mountain, while retaining walls are also required to protect the tracks and bridges from avalanches. Track maintenance crews patrol the line regularly to make sure the rails, overhead power lines and signalling systems are in perfect working order. All these people work far removed from the limelight and very often at night; sometimes alarmingly close to the busy line and sometimes far away from it – on a rockface or on a densely wooded hillside. They all have the same goal, however, which is to keep the Gotthard line open.

Through the new base tunnel at 250km/h

When the new Gotthard Base Tunnel opens in ten years’ time, journeys across the Alps will be shorter than ever. This means, however, that travellers will have to forgo most of the breathtaking views they used to enjoy. At the points where the Leventina and Reuss valleys ascend into the mountains, they will have to bid farewell to daylight and race through the 57km tunnel at speeds of up to 250km/h. They will not be aware of the sweltering temperatures prevailing inside the tunnel, nor of the 2,000 metres of solid rock sitting on top of the twin-bore tunnel. But of one thing they can be sure: that after about 15 minutes inside the tunnel, they will emerge into the light of day and find themselves on the other side of the Gotthard.

About the author

Christian Kräuchi completed an apprenticeship as a rail operations officer at SBB before studying for a Master of Arts at the University of Washington. He then went on to train as a high school teacher at the University of Berne. He rejoined SBB in 1989, initially as a writer and media spokesman. Then from 1995 to 2001 he headed the SBB Media Service. In 2002 he was appointed head of Communications at SBB’s Infrastructure Division.

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