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Political and religious leaders gather for Gotthard opening

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Political and religious leaders gather for Gotthard opening
At 57 kilometres, the new tunnel is the longest in the world. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP
09:01 CEST+02:00
The Gotthard Base Tunnel is to be blessed by a priest, a reverend, a rabbi and an imam on Wednesday morning as part of an inauguration that is being treated as an opportunity for diplomacy.

The world's longest and deepest rail tunnel is officially opened on Wednesday with a range of activities bringing together representatives of different faiths, political viewpoints and countries.

At midday Swiss transport minister Doris Leuthard and president Johann Scheider-Ammann will preside over a ceremony in Pollegio in the canton of Ticino, in front of invited guests including French president Francois Hollande, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi and German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Two trains carrying 500 passengers each – members of the public selected in a draw – will make the inaugural journeys through the tunnel at 12.15pm, before the tunnel is officially opened at 2.45pm.

The historic event is an important opportunity for Switzerland to collaborate with its European neighbours.

On Tuesday evening Leuthard met with the transport ministers of seven alpine countries to discuss future cooperation on transport through the alps.

In their biennial conference, held this year in Lugano, the ministers discussed the importance of transferring travel through the alps from road to rail, one objective of the new tunnel and a “central project to make traffic in the alpine zone safer”, said Leuthard, reported news agencies.

Directors of railways around Europe are also using the event as an opportunity to meet and agree measures for developing rail transport on the continent.

The heads of railways in Switzerland, Germany and Italy have agreed a new direct rail connection between Milan and Frankfurt, passing through the Gotthard in one direction, to begin in December 2017, said ATS.

The head of French railways SNCF was absent from the meeting due to the current strike action in France.

However not everyone considers the opening of the Gotthard to be an opportunity for networking and diplomacy.

According to daily Le Matin, 59 Swiss MPs are choosing to miss the event to do other things.

“It's true that there's a historic aspect to this day but I have plenty of appointments and I will use the day to conclude certain meetings,” Roger Golay told the paper.

Jean-Luc Addor is boycotting the ceremony due to the presence of the imam Bekim Alimi, whom he considers to be too radical, said the paper.

Around 2,000 military personnel will ensure security at the high-profile event, said news agencies.

Switzerland's 57-kilometre (35-mile) Gotthard Base Tunnel runs under the Alps from Erstfeld in the central canton of Uri, to Bodio in the southern Ticino canton.

The tunnel has taken 17 years and more than 12 billion Swiss francs ($12 billion, 11 billion euros) to build.

When the full service opens in December, the tunnel will shave the train journey from Zurich to Milan in northern Italy down to two hours and 40 minutes, roughly an hour less than it currently takes.

The new route also aims to make rail freight more efficient, partly by supporting heavier cargo, which should reduce the number of diesel-guzzling lorries on the roads, improving traffic and curbing pollution.

The number of daily rail passengers is expected to increase from the current rate of 9,000 people to 15,000 by 2020, according to the Swiss federal railway service.

European Union transport commissioner Violeta Bulc last week described the new tunnel as a "godsend for Europe" which will serve as a "a vital link connecting Rotterdam (and) Antwerp with the ports of the Adriatic".

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