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Swiss break through Alps, creating world’s longest tunnel

Sedrun (Switzerland), Oct 15 (DPA) Swiss engineers broke through a final 180 cm of rock deep in the Alpine mountains Friday, linking the world’s longest rail tunnel.

The 57-km Gotthard Base Tunnel in southern Switzerland will be used for transport through the Alps, shortening current travel times.

Routes will be more direct and the trains will whiz through the mighty mountains at speeds reaching 270 km an hour, making the route from Basel to Milan faster than ever.

‘Yesterday we sought to move mountains. Today we have bored right through it and created the world’s longest tunnel,’ Swiss Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger declared at the breakthrough ceremony in Sedrun.

The ceremony to mark the event, after 10 years of construction, started at 1 p.m. (1100 GMT). The breakthrough took place at 2.17 p.m. (1217 GMT), the Swiss SDA news agency reported.

Clearing the final pieces of rock with a massive drilling machine named Sissi, the project reached a major milestone, linking the two sides. One end of the tunnel sits in a German speaking area of Switzerland and the other mouth is in an Italian region.

After the rock was moved away, a miner stepped through from one side of the tunnel to the other, holding a statue of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of miners, the news website Swissinfo reported.

As the miner shook hands with a fellow worker on the other side, shouts of jubilation went out from the labourers and observers.

Miners – perhaps in a nod to recent events in Chile, where 33 such underground workers were rescued after being trapped for over two months – received extensive praise at the ceremony and were dubbed ‘heroes’.

Eight people died while building this tunnel. The original St Gotthard rail tunnel, which was carved out in 1882, saw dozens of people lose their lives during construction.

The newest project, requiring some 2,500 workers, aims at better connecting Europe, even through the difficult terrain that is the Alpine mountain range.

The tunnel was given the go-ahead by the Swiss some 15 years ago in a series of referendums and cost some $10 billion. In Switzerland’s direct democracy, most issues, including public construction projects, are voted on by citizens.

The rail link is expected to open for business, including passenger and freight trains, in 2017.

When completed, the Gotthard tunnel will form part of a larger trans-Alpine rail system, which currently includes the Loetschberg base tunnel and, later this decade, is set to be joined by the planned Brenner and Mont Cenis base tunnels.

Original plans for the Gotthard base tunnel were developed in 1947 by Carl Eduard Gruner, an engineer and urban planner from Basel. Over the years the government gradually advanced the project and it received voters’ final approval in 1994.

The larger network of tunnels will help send more people and goods around the continent on rails and remove traffic from roads, in an effort to make Europe more efficient and greener.

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