The first official passenger train has inaugurated the new Lötschberg rail tunnel – one of two high-speed links being built under the Alps.
The opening of the 34.6km tunnel and the introduction of a new timetable will reduce journey times considerably from many parts of the country to the southwest.
Former cabinet minister Adolf Ogi, the driving force behind the New Railway Links through the Alps (NRLA) project that also includes the Gotthard base tunnel, was among the guests who travelled south from Bern to Visp on Sunday.
"The opening of the Lötschberg to traffic is a major event for canton Valais and for Switzerland," said Ogi, who was welcomed by some 50 local politicians and personalities from the Valais region.
"We owe this construction of the century to Adolf Ogi," declared former Valais senator Daniel Lauber.
The Lötschberg 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 tunnel, 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.
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.
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 started using the tunnel from June 16, 2007. A full passenger service started 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.