The breakthrough in the second tunnel of the new Alpine rail link marks the end of a ten-year long construction phase in one of Europe’s most ambitious engineering projects.
The latest blast, paving the way for a flat and speedier route between northern and southern Europe was completed on Wednesday, when a gigantic boring machine excavated the last meters of rock in the west tunnel, allowing jubilant workers to shake hands from one side to the other.
A similar milestone, with a breakthrough in the east tunnel, was celebrated five months ago in a lavish ceremony which included theatrical performances and live TV coverage that kept the Swiss glued to their television screens as the drilling continued at 600 meters underground.
"With the end of the excavation under the Gotthard, a further important milestone has been reached in the construction of the world's longest railway tunnel", said Renzo Simoni, CEO of AlpTransit Gotthard Ltd, the company in charge of the construction.
Part of the “New Rail Link through the Alps” (NRLA) project, which includes the Loetschberg Base Tunnel and the Ceneri Base Tunnel, the 57-kilometer Gotthard Tunnel is scheduled to open to traffic in 2017.
The link across Switzerland will avoid congested mountain tracks, climbs and curves and allow for a shorter and faster route for high-speed passenger and freight trains. The project is also aimed at making high-speed travel a reality in Switzerland, reducing the time to travel between Zurich and Milan to less than three hours.
The next phase in the 9.83 billion Swiss franc ($10.9 billion) project includes further work on tunnel’s lining and the installation of railway infrastructure, AlpTransit Gotthard said. Work is already under way in some of the tunnel’s previously excavated stretches.
The company has said it plans to hand over the tunnel to Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) in operating condition at the end of May 2016.