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Gotthard tunnel turns 20

Heavy goods traffic at the southern entrance to the Gotthard tunnel Keystone

Switzerland is marking the 20th anniversary of its most famous road tunnel, the Gotthard. The route is Europe's main transport link through the Alps, linking the southern canton of Ticino with the north of Switzerland.

This content was published on September 5, 2000 - 13:42

Switzerland has few modern engineering or architectural marvels that meet the eye - indeed, flying over the country, a visitor would be hard pressed to spot one. The country's tallest building, for example, currently under construction in Basel, will be just 30 stories high on completion.

The reason is that in this alpine land, the engineering marvels are found underground, and none is more impressive than the world's longest road tunnel, stretching almost 17 kilometres through the Alps.

The tunnel opened on September 5, 1980 to great fanfare. It had cost SFr686 million ($396 million) and, like similarly ambitious projects, seemed to herald a new future for the country.

The reality, as always, turned out to be more mundane, if extremely controversial. Today, the tunnel has acquired a sort of pariah status among many Swiss opposed to the growing numbers of vehicles that criss-cross the country.

Indeed, since the heavy snows last year, many Swiss have started to speak of a new danger facing the country - the "traffic avalanche".

The term is not inappropriate. In the weekend before last Easter, 75,000 vehicles traversed the tunnel, causing tailbacks that did not ease for 32 hours. Traffic jams are a common occurrence during holiday periods.

The volume of traffic has soared in the tunnel's 20-year history. In 1981, 171,000 vehicles used it; by 1991 that figure had risen to 1.1 million.

The soaring traffic has prompted motoring organisations to try and force a nationwide vote on a second tunnel. Environmental organisations are naturally resolutely opposed.

by Jonas Hughes

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