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Light emerges at the end of new Alpine tunnel

Diggers cheer the breakthrough

(Keystone)

The Alps have been pierced once again, as diggers carving a new tunnel broke through a part of Europe's largest mountain range on Friday.

After two years of digging, miners shook hands as they met in an 8.9 kilometre stretch of the tunnel, which will eventually link the Bernese Oberland with Valais.

The link-up is the first of five break-throughs that will be required to complete the 34.6 kilometre rail tunnel - called the Lötschberg - which will help to ease the heavy burden of transalpine traffic.

The break through came when one team of miners, which began cutting through at the halfway point, Ferden, made contact with another team, which started at Steg at the south exit of the tunnel.

The Lötschberg is due to be completed in 2007, when it will provide rail travellers with a shorter journey from Italy to northern Europe, making travel around the continent significantly faster.

As the main north-south route through Europe, Switzerland is working to improve its transport links to accommodate the many people who pass through the country each year.

Final links

Much digging remains to be done before the 34.6 kilometres tunnel is complete. So far, about 70 per cent has been excavated, and the digging is expected to continue until 2004.

On completion, the tunnel will link the Bernese Oberland town of Frutigen in the north with Raron in canton Valais, creating a short route through the Bernese Alps.

Rail connections leading to the tunnel from both sides, including the railway in Italy are being modernised to accommodate the new link. This includes the Rail 2000 project, a major expansion project for the Swiss Federal Railways, which is due for completion in December 2004.

AlpTransit, a private tunnel construction company, is constructing the tunnel, with the national railway providing the sponsorship.

Faster links

The Lötschberg tunnel is being constructed in parallel with the new Gotthard rail tunnel, as part of a huge overall plan by the Swiss government to create a more efficient rail network.

The plans for improving the network began in 1993, when the Swiss voted for an upgraded transalpine railway. Parliament then decided on the tunnel design when it accepted AlpTransit's proposal in 1998.

The Lötschberg was originally envisaged as a two-tube system so trains going in both directions could use the tunnel at the same time.

However, budget cuts have meant that in parts, the tunnel will consist of just one tube, meaning trains going in opposite directions will have to share the track.

swissinfo

Key facts

The new Lötschberg railway tunnel will be 34.6 kilometres long.
Excavations are around 70 per cent complete, with work due to finish in 2007.
The tunnel will link canton Bern with canton Valais.

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