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World's longest tunnel to provide fillip for Switzerland's skiers

A skiers' paradise could become a rail travellers' headache after the Swiss government last week offered its support for a huge new railway station deep below the Alps.

The proposed Porta Alpina beneath the Gotthard massif would allow travellers from Zurich or Milan to reach the heart of the mountains in just 50 minutes.

That is less than half current journey times and infinitely more convenient, as the station would be within skiing distance of resorts such as Andermatt in central Switzerland.

"It would be fantastic for us and neighbouring resorts", said Urs Elmiger, head of administration at Andermatt's cable car company. "People could get out of the train, snap on their skis and be here in minutes."

But the project has aroused mixed feelings among backers of Switzerland's SFr16bn (€10.3bn, $12.3bn, £7bn) trans-alpine rail projects. Railway officials decline to express themselves publicly. But most believe that stopping trains to serve a small interest group is hard to justify when spending billions to slash intercity journey times.

Switzerland is building two new tunnels under the Alps to accelerate travel between northern and southern Europe and, it is hoped, take trucks off the roads.

The first link, the 35km Lötschberg tunnel, should be opened by December 2007, easing congestion in the western Alps by reducing pressure on the current, much shorter tunnel.

Eight years later, the Lötschberg will be overshadowed by the new Gotthard link. The 57km tunnel, 3km longer that Japan's Sei-kan tunnel, currently the world's longest, is being dug from four different points to speed construction times.

The project is overwhelming from every angle. At Bodio, in Italian-speaking Switzerland, one of the world's biggest boring machines is inching its way forward in sweltering temperatures close to the mountain's core. "This is one of the world's most exciting projects", said Albert Schmid, German site manager. For safety, the tunnel will have two emergency stations deep inside the Alps.

The cavernous stops, cathedrals inside the mountain, will have full length platforms and even allow trains to change tracks between the single bore tunnels.

Since its inception, regional politicians have pressed for one of the emergency stations to be transformed into a commercial stop - called the Porta Alpina.

Doing so will involve only an additional SFr50m in spending, to convert to passenger use the 800m deep lift shaft that has been excavated to provide access for construction workers.

After a two-minute journey, the 80 travellers in each lift car will be able to alight at the mountain top near the ski resort of Sedrun, snap on their skis, and be off.

Moritz Leuenberger, Switzerland's transport minister, said the scheme would be a huge boost to regional development.

"But it's not meant to be a way of encouraging day trippers from Milan to pick loads of mushrooms in our valleys", he said.

The Swiss policy of forcing trucks to cross their country on trains only (and backing it up by building the requisite infrastructure) is a great example of forward thinking and responsible policies. Maybe our Swiss residents can comment on this...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Jul 4th, 2005 at 06:13:25 AM EST

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