The Lötschberg rail tunnel – one of two high-speed links being built under the Alps – has been officially opened by Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger.
The 34.6km tunnel, which is set to be fully operational in December, is the longest rail tunnel in Switzerland and the third-longest in the world – although it will be overtaken by the Gotthard base tunnel, due to open in 2017.
The Lötschberg, which runs from Frutigen in the Kander valley to Raron in canton Valais, and the Gotthard are part of an overall plan by the Swiss government to create a more efficient rail network and help ease the heavy burden of transalpine traffic. The policy was approved by Swiss voters in 1998.
In his opening speech on Friday, Leuenberger said the tunnel was proof that "the will of the Swiss people can move mountains".
The Lötschberg is estimated to have cost SFr4.3 billion ($3.59 billion), but Leuenberger said the New Railway Links through the Alps (NRLA) project was about more than just making profits.
"It's about inner cohesion – about all regions taking part in the new rail network and in investments for future generations."
Around 42 passenger trains – 30 between Bern and Valais and 12 to and from Milan – and up to 80 goods trains will use the new high-speed link on a daily basis, with 40 more continuing to take the old rail route via Kandersteg and Goppenstein.
The Lötschberg will bring cantons Bern and Valais closer together, shaving travel time by a third between the capital and Brig, and shortening the journey between Germany and Milan by an hour.
An intensive test phase began at the beginning of December 2006, with the first trains travelling at speeds of up to 280km/h.
Leuenberger was joined in the rain at Visp, at the southern end of the construction, by around 1,200 guests, including European Union Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot and German Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee.
"It's an emotional day," Leuenberger said. "Even the sky is crying..."
They all then boarded a train and soon arrived at the tunnel's north entrance at Frutigen, bursting through a banner declaring "Lötschberg - connecting Europe" to the accompaniment of fireworks.
swissinfo with agencies
The Lötschberg was originally envisaged as a two-tunnel system. But budget cuts have meant that in parts the tunnel will consist of just one tunnel, so that trains going in opposite directions will have to share the track.
The first goods trains will be able to use the tunnel from June 16, 2007. A full passenger service will start from December 9, 2007.
The Lötschberg is expected to cost SFr4.3 billion ($3.59 billion), up from the initial estimate of SFr3.2 as a result of "security improvements", according to AlpTransit.
The overall approved budget for the whole NRLA project (Lötschberg, Gotthard and Ceneri tunnels) of SFr12.6 billion could well rise to SFr24 billion.