Spectacular Gotthard still steals the show

The Gotthard line has some steep challenges Keystone

One of the most amazing rail journeys in Switzerland is the main transalpine artery from north to south – the Gotthard.

This content was published on February 14, 2006 - 10:31

It has everything a rail enthusiast could wish for: bridges galore, steep climbs and descents with spirals, and a 15-kilometre-long tunnel that has made a name for itself around the world.

If there had been a cultural heritage prize when the Gotthard line opened for public traffic on June 1, 1882, it might well have been a serious contender for top honours.

"When it was built it was the most important line through the Alps," says historian Kilian Elsasser. "For [young] Switzerland, it was a kind of core project to get together as a nation."

And to put the icing on the cake, the Gotthard line offers views that few other routes can rival. "The fantastic scenery makes it one of the most exciting journeys for any passenger," enthuses London-based travel writer Anthony Lambert.

One of the marvels, for example, is the baroque church at Wassen on the northern ramp which can be seen no fewer than three times as the train passes it by on three different levels.


Although passengers take the line for granted these days, its construction was a hazardous business, and took far longer, and cost far more, than had been expected.

The Gotthard line was not, on paper, a purely Swiss affair. Both Italy and Germany provided funds so they could use the line, after a deal struck at an international conference held in Bern in 1869.

The agreement formed the basis for the Gotthard Railway Society, founded in Lucerne and with headquarters in Zurich.

The Gotthard route had to climb 633 metres in altitude on a stretch of just 18 kilometres between Erstfeld and Göschenen on the northern approach in canton Uri.

From the southern portal in the Leventina valley, 848 m in altitude had to be covered in 46 kms between Airolo and Biasca.


The tunnel, which dominated the headlines of the day, was praised as a work of the century on completion, to be compared with the Suez Canal that was opened in 1869.

"It took ten years to build the tunnel and the poor man charged with building it, Louis Favre, failed to live to see it. He died on the site and is buried in the churchyard at Göschenen," Lambert explained.

Favre, from Geneva, obviously loved a gamble and was convinced he could make a fortune out of the venture.

"He was a crazy kind of guy who offered to build the tunnel within eight years. He agreed that for each day there was a delay he would pay SFr5,000 as a penalty – the equivalent of about two years' salary of a locomotive driver at that time," historian Elsasser said.

The agreement stipulated that, if the project was completed ahead of schedule, Favre would be given SFr5,000 for each day.

"He thought that by building it in six years, he would become a rich man," said Elsasser.

More than 2,500 men were working at times on the tunnel. The conditions were so bad that they eventually downed tools in 1875. Several deaths were reported when police and a vigilante group of volunteers used force to end the strike.


While much has been written about the engineering feat at the Gotthard and the tireless work of the men, women also contributed in no small part to its construction. Elsasser has been putting together an exhibition on that very subject.

"For women it was like in an American gold rush village where the social structure was not defined and it gave more possibilities for them to be entrepreneurs to run a hotel or a restaurant, even a brothel," he said.

"It made them more independent because they could earn their own money."

For almost a century the Gotthard rail tunnel had no competition. But that changed in 1980 with the opening of the two-lane, single tube road tunnel that has made the name "Gotthard" almost a dirty word.


"Since the opening of the Gotthard motorway in 1980, the magical word "Gotthard" has lost some its lustre. It has become a synonym for transit and queues, and arouses feelings of anger and loss," as the Alpine Museum in Bern puts it.

At holiday times, the Gotthard road through the Alps never fails to appear in the traffic news because of congestion.

"My objection is it has been driven through landscapes of great beauty without any thought to blending it in the way that the railway engineers did," travel writer Lambert said.

"They built it using local stone and as you go through you get no sense of a nasty intrusion, whereas the road blasts through on great concrete piers without any thought about protecting the landscape," he added.

Lambert is also in two minds about the new 57-km long Gotthard base rail tunnel being built between Erstfeld and Bodio. He describes the principle of shifting trucks from road to rail as "marvellous".

"My only slight reservation is that tourists come to Switzerland because you have the finest landscapes in Europe and they will miss many of the wonderful views of the Gotthard if they’re in a tunnel all the time," he commented.

swisinfo, Robert Brookes

Key facts

Construction work at both ends of the Gotthard began in 1872 with a large contingent of Italian workers More than 2,500 were working at times.
There is a bronze plaque at Airolo station commemorating the 177 men who officially died. Modern research puts the death toll at closer to 200.
Apart from a single curve at the southern end, the tunnel is straight.
When the tunnellers met in 1880, the centre lines of the bore were only 18 cm out horizontally and 10 cm vertically.

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In brief

About 18.3 million net tonnes of freight were transported through the Gotthard tunnel in 2004.

About 10,000 passengers travel through the tunnel per day.

Between 120 and 150 freight trains and 80 passenger trains travel through it per day.

Up to four trains per direction use the tunnel at the same time.

Tunnel passage time: 11 to 12 minutes.

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