Light at end of tunnel for subterranean station

Departing Milan – next stop Sedrun. Visiun Porta Alpina

Two entrepreneurs are hoping to win approval to build the world’s deepest underground railway station in Switzerland, nearly one kilometre below the Earth’s surface.

This content was published on January 27, 2004 - 14:56

The federal government would have to fund the project located at Sedrun in canton Graubünden.

The “Porta Alpina” would be in the new trans-alpine Gotthard Base Tunnel linking Zurich and Milan, and provide a gateway to the Alps.

The project was submitted by two entrepreneurs, and still needs federal approval.

“This is something the world has never seen before!” enthuses Marc Cathomen, one of the initiators of the Porta Alpina project. His vision is of a one-kilometre-long access tunnel bored into a mountainside, leading to an elevator which descends a further 800 metres.

The lift would cover a distance greater than the “highest building on Earth”, Cathomen adds.

The project is far from being just a pipe dream. The tunnel and elevator shaft are already in place just outside the village of Sedrun in canton Graubünden.

They provide access to one of the main construction sites where workers and machines are digging the new trans-alpine Gotthard Base Tunnel.

When it opens in around 12 years’ time, the tunnel will allow trains to travel non-stop at speeds exceeding 200 kilometres per hour between northern Switzerland and northern Italy, eventually cutting travel times between Zurich and Milan by nearly half.

Fresh mountain air

Cathomen’s plan is to break the journey at a permanent subterranean station, where intercity passengers would be able to get out, catch a breath of fresh mountain air and perhaps do a little skiing.

“At first, people laughed at our idea,” Cathomen remembers. “But we never lost faith and knew that we could change people’s minds if we launched an information campaign.”

His association, Vision Porta Alpina, eventually managed to convince enough people in high places to carry out a feasibility study.

The results of the government-sponsored study have just been published, and show that a permanent station can be built at the relatively low cost of between SFr40 million and SFr50($29 million to $36 million).

Economic benefits

The study also says the station would do wonders for the economically depressed economy of Sedrun and the other villages in the Surselva valley of canton Graubünden.

At least 50,000 new tourists would come to ski, golf or hike each year, it reported, and it would make the valley an attractive place to live and work since Zurich and Milan would only be an hour away.

The increase in tax revenue alone would cover the station’s annual operating costs.

While most people in the valley support the project, Martina Bischof, who runs the regional tourist office, says some remain sceptical.

“There are two points of view,” she says. “There are those who say the romantic little villages we have here will not be the same anymore because of the increase in tourists and infrastructure.

Think globally

“But I think we have to think a little bit more globally,” she adds. “From Milan, you can get here in no time at all through the tunnel.”

Swiss Federal Railways, which would have to operate the Sedrun station, is among the main critics.

Spokesman Christian Kräuchi hints that the company is not keen to have a multi-million franc scheme getting in the way of a multi-billion franc alpine tunnel project.

“At some point a decision will have to be taken, either in favour of passenger and heavy freight trains running non-stop after each other or passenger trains having to stop to load or unload a couple of dozen passengers,” he argues.

Reduced capacity

The Gotthard Base Tunnel is one of two major alpine rail projects currently under way in Switzerland. They were initially expected to cost a total of SFr12.6 billion, but experts now say the cost will be SFr2.4 billion higher.

Kräuchi says that given the high cost of the new Gotthard tunnel, Swiss Federal Railways wants to operate it at maximum capacity.

“Stopping in the middle of the mountain reduces that capacity.”

A final decision will have to be taken at the federal level over the next couple of years, but Cathomen is optimistic about the station’s chances.

“Just imagine it’s a cloudy or hazy day in Milan,” he says as he inspects the Sedrun construction site. “People from the city will leave the tunnel here and step into the sunshine and snow.

“It’s paradise, and that’s why they’ll come.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Sedrun

Key facts

Main findings of the feasibility study carried out by the government of canton Graubünden and University of St Gallen:
Cost of building the permanent railway station – SFr40-50 million.
Annual operating costs – SFr2.5 million.
An hourly train service is possible.
At least 50,000 more tourists will visit the region each year if the station is built, helping generate an additional SFr30 million in turnover annually.
The region will also become a more attractive place to live, so the population, now at 25,000, is expected to grow by about 1,000 – increasing annual tax revenue by about SFr4 million.

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In brief

The idea for the Gotthard Base Tunnel was first tabled by an engineering student in the 1940s, who envisaged a station beneath Sedrun.

He described the tunnel station as the “gateway to the ski slopes of the chic resort of Sedrun, reachable in an hour from Basel, Zurich and Milan”.

The “Vision Porta Alpina” association contends that the station, if built, would become a top tourist attraction in its own right, and enter the Guinness Book of World Records.

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