Later this year, one of railway engineering’s outstanding construction efforts is about to be bypassed: The new 57 km (35 mile) Gotthard Base Tunnel will supplant the old Gotthardbahn line with its sets of spiral tunnels and former world-record 15 km (9 mile) Gotthard Tunnel.
The Gothard line opened in 1882 to serve the substantial cross-Alpine passenger and freight markets in the corridor linking Basel and Zurich in the north with Milan in the south. Construction involved some key innovations: the first use of dynamite in rail tunneling, and the several spiral tunnels on each side of the pass dug just to gain altitude. The steepest parts of the line, up to the pass then down on both sides, is between Erstfeld in the north and Bellinzona in the south. This stretch, with grades up to 2.6 percent, has posed a tough railroading challenge from the opening to this day, keeping top speeds down to about 40 mph over much of the distance and limiting the weight and length of freight trains to well below norms.
The new line will cut out the steep grades and spiral tunnels, permitting passenger train speeds up to 250 km/hr (156 mph) and freight trains three times as long and heavy as the current line permits. It will knock up to an hour off passenger times between Milan and Zurich. It will be great for travelers who want to get between those cities–or points beyond–as quickly as possible.
But travelers on the new high-speed services will miss out on some unmatched mountain railroad scenery. In early May, I rode a regional train from Bellinzona to Erstfeld and back, just to enjoy the old line’s scenery. And if you like Alpine scenery, you get lots of it. Spiral tunnels on both sides of the pass allow you to look down at two levels of track that you either just passed or are about to pass. If you have a choice, the best viewing is on the west side of the train in the south and east side in the north, but each side offers some great views.
Fortunately, even though the expresses next year will go through the new tunnel, the Swiss railway will keep operating local trains over the old line. If you have a chance, take it for an unmatched–even if a bit slower–train ride.
— Ed Perkins, editor
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