As holey as Swiss cheese, the Alps contain hundreds of kilometres of tunnels – and Alpine nations keeps digging deeper.
In 2016, Switzerland inaugurated the world’s longest and deepest tunnel, a 57-km-long rail marvel linking north and south under the Gotthard Massif. This feat was made possible by German tunnelling company Herrenknecht, which broke records by drilling up to 56 metres in one day. Founder Martin Herrenknecht says the tunnel under the English Channel was «child’s play» compared to the Gotthard Base Tunnel, which spans nine different geological zones. Other large-scale projects underway include a tunnel under the Brenner Pass between Austria and Italy. The existing road is the busiest transalpine route, saturated by 31 million tonnes of merchandise carried by truck annually. To cut down on pollution, noise and environmental damage, Austria and Italy began digging a 55-km-long railway tunnel in 2011, to be completed by 2025. To the west, the 57-km-long Mont d’Ambin Base Tunnel connecting Italy and France will be operational by 2030, extending the high-speed TGV line from Lyon to Turin.
Boosting European growth
Road and railway tunnels
Plumbing the depths
Space conquest is not the only challenge that inspires dreams. The human imagination is also fascinated by utopian projects that explore the depths of our Earth.
The Boring Company
Tesla founder Elon Musk takes his cues from Los Angeles traffic. In the wake of Hyperloop, his supersonic train, Musk has founded The Boring Company to tackle traffic. His vision includes several layers of underground road networks. To make this vision a reality, he wants to build one-lane tunnels using faster boring machines at a tenth of current costs.
This ambitious project for an underground magnetic levitation (maglev) train was launched in Switzerland in 1992, but later abandoned. With a target speed of 500 km/h and based on tests conducted at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, it would have connected Switzerland’s major cities and even Lyon’s St. Exupéry Airport via an extension dubbed Eurometro.
The tunnel-boring machine, a mechanical masterpiece
Cross-section of a tunnel-boring machine similar to the one used to build the Channel Tunnel, which opened in 1994.
Journalist: Blandine Guignier
Infographic: Thibaud Tissot (onlab)
Sources: Alpine freight traffic observatory (under the EU-CH Land Transport Agreement): 2015 annual report, “The Long Dig”, Burkhard Bilger, The New Yorker, 15.09.2008, www.herrenknecht.com, www.structurae.net, www.wikipedia.org www.lotsberg.net, www.openstreetmap.org, www.gramme.be