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As it happens


World’s longest rail tunnel opens in Switzerland


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The Gotthard, at 57 kilometres in length, is the world's longest and deepest rail tunnel (Keystone)

The Gotthard, at 57 kilometres in length, is the world's longest and deepest rail tunnel

(Keystone)

The Gotthard rail tunnel through the Alps has opened to great fanfare from across Europe. Two separate celebrations were held at each end of the tunnel, with visiting heads of state and dignitaries in attendance. 

The tunnel was opened by Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann. Speaking from the north portal in Rynächt, canton Uri, the visibly proud minister said: "Today is an historic day for our country: We have completed the Gotthard Base Tunnel, an epic feat of engineering, a project that has involved generations, from the first sketches, to the planning and construction of the tunnel. I feel extremely proud, but also quite humble."

Transport Minister Doris Leuthard, from the south portal at Pollegio in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, added that the tunnel was "also a symbol of openness and progress", that linked different languages, cultures, and peoples. It also strengthened cohesion in Switzerland and Europe and boosted the economy, she said.

Later, speaking with swissinfo.ch, she grew emotional, saying it is "proof that Switzerland can achieve something".

At 12:18 pm the first two trains from each portal set off on their journey through the tunnel. At 12:50 pm the trains arrived at the other end of the tunnel to a volley of whistles and much applause and cheers from onlookers. 

There were around 500 people on board the first journeys. They won a competition to gain their seats.

Here is a first look at what it's like inside.

Who's there?

The event has attracted a lot of international interest. Germany’s Angela Merkel, France's François Hollande, Italy’s Matteo Renzi and the new Austrian chancellor Christian Kern are in attendance.

The Italian Ambassador in Bern captured on camera Merkel, Hollande, Renzi and Schneider-Amman sharing a first-class four-seater.

In what has been seen as many as a surprise move, top European Union officials such as Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, as well as the heads of the commission and parliament, have stayed away. The EU was represented by EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc.  

Switzerland is in the midst of difficult negotiations with the EU over immigration issues, and Schneider-Ammann said on Wednesday that "the same worldview being expressed here today" is needed to resolve them. 

"I'm convinced that we can meet these great challenges," the Swiss president and economics minister said. "We need to shape the future together."

And the world has been watching - journalists from as far away as China, Kuwait, Turkey and Japan were in attendance for the day's events, among a press pool of around 300 total. About one-third of them come from abroad.

Europe’s more efficient rerouting of freight through the new Gotthard tunnel – the main reason for its construction – won’t happen overnight. Italy plans to have its three major access routes to the tunnel ready by 2020, but in Germany, the necessary network expansion could take up to 20 years.    

Angela Merkel said at the Gotthard event that "we know we're delayed" in building out transport routes over the Rhine valley that would eventually link Italy and Germany.

"The Gotthard is the heart, now the aorta is just missing," she said. 

But the German chancellor added the tunnel's dramatic opening had inspired her country to make it happen. 

"This is a great day that links the North with the South," she said.

The grand opening

Major celebrations took the form of a group of 600 actors taking part in a theatre performance about the legend of the Gotthard and the new tunnel. Here's a scene from the opening ceremony.

Alphorns, army musicians and local choirs also performed during the celebrations. 

The Gotthard event kicked off at 8:30 am with an official blessing of the tunnel. But that ceremony was not without controversy: originally, an inter-faith group of religious leaders was set to take part including an imam, a rabbi, a non-denominational representative and a Catholic priest representing the Christian faith. But after former transport minister Adolf Ogi spoke out about the fact that no Protestant representative was to take part, divisions emerged among Switzerland's Christian community. In the end, a Catholic priest, a pastor, a rabbi and an imam were present.

Here are some essential facts about the tunnel and why it’s captivated the whole of Europe: 


And more about just how much time, money and manpower went into the project:

Do you feel as proud as Swiss Transport Minister Doris Leuthard about the new tunnel? Or do you find it difficult to understand what all the fuss is about? Let us know in the comments!

swissinfo.ch and agencies

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