ZURICH, Switzerland, Sept. 12, 2015 – Ever since the Swiss created their first rail line, a 12-mile stretch of track from Zurich to Baden, in 1847, the country has made transportation an art form that is the envy of the world.
Next year, when the 38-mile Gotthard Base Tunnel is completed, a new era of train travel will be unveiled as the longest rail tunnel in the world. The architectural, engineering and transportation marvel will ultimately reduce travel between Zurich and Milan by an hour.
The St. Gotthard Pass is already home of the world’s first Alpine railway, which was christened 133 years ago in 1882.
Two base tunnels are presently under construction in Switzerland. The Gotthard, which is to be inaugurated on June 1 with regularly scheduled service planned for December of 2016, and the Ceneri Base Tunnel that will open three years later.
Historically the Gotthard has been a major connecting route between northern and southern Europe since the early 13th century. Among the major obstacles preventing earlier use was the need to ford the River Reuss, which was frequently flooded by turbulent rapids resulting from melting snow at higher elevations.
Nearly 100 years after the Gotthard rail tunnel began service, the Gotthard Road Tunnel was opened in 1980, allowing cars to traverse the pass. Until that time, automobile traffic could cross the mountains as long as the road was passable with limited accumulations of snow.
The final stretch of the Gotthard Base Tunnel was broken through in October of 2010. As would be expected, Switzerland plans a huge national celebration on June 4 and 5, 2016, when the general public will be allowed to use the tunnel for the first time. As part of the festivities, a drawing will be held in January to allocate seats on the train.
When the 10-mile Ceneri Base Tunnel (CBT) opens in 2019, it will complete the final piece in the mosaic of the north-south corridor in Switzerland, and it will inaugurate a continuous level-track railway known as the New Rail Link through the Alps (NRLA).
Visitors to Switzerland who have traveled by train through the St. Gotthard Pass in the past have long been familiar with the St. Gotthard Tunnel, a spiral tunnel through the pass. Though passengers have no sensation of making the turns through the tunnel, there is a familiar landmark that gives riders a sense of perspective.
As trains meander over, under, around and through the Gotthard Pass, passengers are delighted to view the Church at Wassen, perhaps the most outstanding Catholic church in Switzerland.
What makes the chapel so recognizeable however, is the way that it is viewed. Says Esther Burri, a pastoral assistant at the church, “The church here in Wassen is certainly one of the most well-known in Switzerland, if not the most well-known, because you see it three times from the train.”
Depending upon the direction the train is traveling, riders view the church from above, from eye level and from below. Because of the helical tunnels that guide trains up and down the Gotthard ramp, the Church at Wassen actually helps people get their bearings and realize that as they have been traveling through the pass they have basically been going around in circles.
While the church appears small from the train, and though locals call it the Chileli, or little church, it is actually much larger than it seems. Naturally, thanks to its baroque style, the interior is also rather ostentatious.
Strangely enough, though thousands upon thousands of tourists are familiar with the church at Wassen, relatively few ever actually visit.
The Swiss have always prided themselves on their ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to give their country one of the highest standards of living in the world. Digging tunnels, therefore, comes naturally, and burrowing through the Alps can be traced back as far as 1708. It was then that the Umerloch Tunnel, near Andermatt, became the first road tunnel for goods and passenger traffic, measuring approximately 21 miles in length.
Nearly two centuries later, trains were also able to cross over the pass, thus bringing to an end difficult and treacherous mule-back journeys.
The original St. Gotthard railway tunnel took 10 years to complete and cost the lives of almost 200 workers. It was the longest tunnel in the world until 1906, when another marvel of Swiss engineering, the Simplon Tunnel, was about two miles longer than her cousin.
Come 2016, however, the Gotthard will reclaim the trophy with the opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel at a distance of 38 miles.
Ticket sales begin in April 2016.
In the words of Michael Flanders, “If God had intended us to fly, He would have never given us railways,” and in Switzerland trains are truly wonders of engineering.
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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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