Friday, 1 July 2016

The Engineering Feats and Eccentric Opening of the Gotthard Tunnel

by Zita Edwards

About a month ago 17 years of construction and engineering drew to a close with the opening of the Gotthard Tunnel. Although originally sketched in 1947 the Gotthard Tunnel has only recently been completed, with its engineering and design journey spanning over generations. After a total of €11 billion the dual 57km base tunnel has been completed connecting North and South Europe deep beneath the Alps. The economic benefits from the structure will be significant, also the potential to merge languages, cultures and people will greatly benefit mainland Europe.

To celebrate the opening of this grand tunnel Switzerland produced two opening ceremonies at the North port with the President Johann Schneider-Ammann declaring the tunnel officially open. These shows were quite spectacular because of their bizarre nature. Witnessed by heads of state including Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel, the main ceremony directed by Volkar Hesse opened with an army of people dressed as construction workers marching to the beat of a drum before a group of half-naked dancers paraded through.

Although designed to reflect Swiss culture the eccentric performance included scenes of workers climbing and falling off mountainsides, people wearing extra large heads, masks and skulls. Conforming more to Swiss tradition a performer dressed as a mountain goat conducted what seemed to replicate a spiritual ceremony, consistent with Swiss Christmas culture, and local choirs and orchestras were invited to perform. Despite the spectacle achieving its aim of being unforgettable the audience seemed to offer a confused applause and questions arose around its legacy. The large winged creature scene was meant to act as a tribute of remembrance to the nine workers who died in the construction process, however this tribute seemed overly sinister and not so respectable to the late workers.

Apart from the obvious engineering achievements and records of the base tunnel it's precise engineering and scheduling also make it special. It is often overlooked that this tunnel is one of a kind since the rock excavated is extremely hard and usual tunnelling techniques may not be viable. The extensive focus on safety in the Gotthard Tunnel makes it unique, by creating two separate one-way tunnels in opposite directions the is no way the trains can collide even when they reach speeds of 155mph. Also, the cross-linking escape tunnels are every few hundred meters reducing the probability of disasters such as the Mont Blanc Tunnel fire. The surveillance and automated detectors also provide better warnings to commuters of gas leaks and fire.

Although we've celebrated the opening of the base tunnel, the overall planned network is not complete. By 2020 Italy hopes to finish its planned linking networks and further developments towards Germany are forecast to last at least 20 years. With this route cutting journey times by hours the European community can become a lot closer and diverse.

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