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Funding approval elevates world's longest lift

The station is a long way down

(swissinfo.ch)

Promoters of a revolutionary underground railway station are confident the project will now go ahead after securing more than half of the funding.

If completed, there will be nothing like "Porta Alpina" worldwide – the deepest underground station in the middle of the longest railway tunnel, connected to the surface by the longest lift.

The opening of the 57km Gotthard base tunnel is still ten years away, but locals in the Surselva, one of the valleys under which it will pass, are celebrating a breakthrough.

The Swiss parliament last week approved SFr7.5 million ($5.74 million) to kick-start the SFr50 million Porta Alpina plan. That was quickly followed by lawmakers in canton Graubünden who promised a further SFr20 million.

The people of the isolated and economically depressed mountain region in Graubünden are now well on their way to being connected to the rest of the world by a high-speed rail link.

"Four years ago, people here were disillusioned, and many talked about moving to Zurich," Marc Cathomen, one of the initiators of the project told swissinfo.

Optimistic

He says there is now a mood of optimism with local businesses thinking about expansion instead of relocation.

When completed in 2015, the tunnel will vastly reduce travelling times between places north and south of the Alps, and move more freight from road to rail.

The idea of Cathomen and his business partners is to convert the access tunnel and elevator shaft used at the Gotthard construction site outside the village of Sedrun into a permanent subterranean railway station.

Instead of whizzing from urban Zurich to the Milan metropolis non-stop, travellers would have the option of disembarking in the heart of the Alps to go skiing or play a round of golf.

The SFr50 million is what has been budgeted to refit the existing tunnel and shaft with passenger facilities and safety features, including a lift to whisk travellers to the surface level from the rail platform 800 metres below.

Tallest

In comparison, the CN Tower in Toronto – considered the world's tallest structure – is only 553m high.

"We want to use the superlatives as a calling card for our beautiful valley and its tourist attractions," Cathomen says.

A feasibility study carried out a couple of years ago by the canton figured that by cutting travelling times to Zurich by half (1.5 hours in future), the project would not only stop the exodus of people from the mountain region but attract 1,000 new residents.

It would also boost tourist numbers by around 50,000 a year. The end result, according to the study, would be SFr35 million in additional income annually – ten times higher than the forecasted operating costs.

The argument was enough to convince politicians who are used to approving transfer payments for poor mountain regions without seeing much return on their investment.

Visionary

Supporters in parliament called the project "visionary", scoring a victory over opponents who warned that costs could spiral out of control and that having trains stop in the middle of the tunnel would slow service, defeating the purpose of the high-speed rail link.

Cathomen admits that the railway station alone is no guarantee that the mountain communities in the Surselva will in future be able to compete with big name resorts like Zermatt or St Moritz.

But he says the approval of the funding has provided impetus for the region's authorities to develop a master plan.

"One idea is to put a moratorium on any new housing or construction projects for the next couple of years to win time to work on a concept," Cathomen says.

He is confident that the Surselva valley's untapped potential will attract investors once the railway station is a done deal.

The Porta Alpina supporters are buoyed by the interest expressed by the Egyptian consortium, Orascom, in building a giant resort complete with hotels, apartments and golf course in Andermatt in the neighbouring valley.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Key facts

Switzerland's federal and Graubünden's cantonal parliaments have earmarked SFr27.5 million of the SFr50 million needed to build the underground railway station, Porta Alpina.
The cantonal share of SFr20 million still needs to be approved by voters in Graubünden next February.
Work is expected to begin on the station with the construction of a passenger concourse inside the tunnel next March.
The station will be located 800 metres below ground, connected to the surface level by what will be the world's longest lift.

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