Celebrations crown centenary of the Simplon

Men dressed in old-fashioned tunnel workers' costumes during an anniversary ceremony in Brig on Friday Keystone

Officials of Switzerland and Italy on Friday celebrated the 100th birthday of the Simplon rail tunnel which links the two countries.

This content was published on May 19, 2006 - 21:30

The centenary was also an occasion to reflect on the 67 workers who died building the Simplon, the longest rail tunnel in the world until 1988.

The 19.8 kilometre-long tunnel begins south of the town of Brig in canton Valais and ends at Iselle on the Italian side. The railway then descends an incline before arriving at the first main town of Domodossola.

Swiss Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger, who is this year's president, described the Simplon tunnel as a pioneer work which was still so at the age of 100.

"The Simplon tunnel sealed friendship between two regions (Valais and Piedmont) and between two towns. Brig and Domodossola became twin towns and have remained so ever since," he said.

Leuenberger noted the role the state had played in the construction of the tunnel after private companies were overtaken by the enormity of the project.

"The Simplon, like all other rail tunnels, knows it only too well: only the state can be the guarantor of mobility that respects man and the environment.

Amazing feat

"No private enterprise could manage the amazing feat of transferring traffic from road to rail," he added.

It is Switzerland's transport policy to encourage goods that transit the country to use rail rather than road. As a result, two new large base tunnels are currently being built at the Lötschberg and the Gotthard.

"The Simplon will remain the longest Alpine tunnel for another year. Then it will be the Lötschberg that will hold the record," commented the chief executive of the Swiss Federal Railways, Benedikt Weibel.

"That will remain the longest in our network for ten years when the Gotthard base tunnel will take over with its 57 kilometres. At the same time, it will become the longest tunnel in the world."

Fresh air

The head of the Valais government, Thomas Burgener, said the Lötschberg and Simplon tunnels had given a breath of welcome fresh air to the canton.

"Without them, our economy and tourism would be almost inexistent... the Simplon line runs like a vein across our canton and helps overcome language barriers," he said.

Earlier in the day, 400 invited guests attended a reception in Domodossola before travelling to Iselle for a memorial prayer for those who died in the construction work.

A plaque at Iselle commemorates the 67 who died, but many more are thought to have died from illnesses contracted during the project.

The priests of Brig and Varzo noted that for each of the men "a life of joy and pain, successes and failures, hopes and disappointments had passed away".

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

The success of the Simplon can be gauged by some of the amazing figures it has achieved over the years.

400 passengers were expected daily during the first year of operation. The actual figure was 1,000. Last year's figure was 4,300 or 11 times that anticipated a century ago.

Passenger trains travelling through the Simplon numbered 14 a day in 1906. Last year the figure was 54 a day.

300 tons of goods were expected daily in 1906. In 2005, the weight of goods that went through the Simplon was about 25,000 tons, or 80 times more than foreseen.

Travel time from Paris to Milan is today almost a third of what it was in 1920 at 7 hours and 51 minutes.

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Key facts

Tunnel I of the Simplon was pierced on February 24, 1905.
The budget for the construction of tunnel I and for the pilot heading II was SFr70 million ($57.4 million), but real construction costs totalled SFr78 million.
Construction of tunnel II cost a further SFr34 million.

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