Tue Jun 19th, 2007 at 10:48:04 AM EST
A whole lot of big rail projects open this year and next. A week ago, the LGV Est Européenne entered service (see diaries on VIP opening trains, record run). Last weekend, the Lötschberg Base Tunnel (LBT) was opened in Switzerland. At precisely 34.576.6 m long, it is the world's current third longest after the two 50+km giants (Seikan, Chunnel).
BLS 465 001 with a freight train blasts across the paper at the north portal. Photo from the official site
The Lötschberg Route
A century ago, a second Swiss transalpine line has been built, along the Berne[Swiss capital]–Milan axis. It involved two giant tunnels: the famous Simplon, which was the world's longest for a long long time, and the less famous Lötschberg.
The Lötschberg section was less an answer to demand from the economy than an attempt by the city and canton of Berne to get back some importance. A line with several bridges and spiral tunnels on the climb up a former glacier valley from the north resp. the steep side of the Rhône valley from the south to a 14,612 m summit tunnel had to be tremendously expensive already.
Tunnel breakthrough on 31 March 1911. Photo from Droste Orlowski
After diverse other disasters including an avalanche, in 1908 the north tunnel bore hit upon a giant water reservoir: the washout killed 26, and boring had to be re-started on an avoiding route (ending up a kilometre longer than originally planned). Thus when finished, the line was a financial catastrophe, too.
But, as decades passed, the Lötschberg became a fairly well-frequented freight route, reaching the capacity limit. The line was double-tracked in full in the nineties, and then the track was 'sunk' in the tunnels so that truck-carrying cars fit in. Meanwhile, operating semi-private railway (stock owners are the state and cantons) BLS got profitable.
Truck transport over dizzy heights. BLS Re 465 008 and 005 descend the South Ramp of the Lötschberg route with a RoLa (Rollende Landstraße = rolling country road) train, reaching the Luogelkinn viaduct high above the Rhône valley. Photo by Markus Blaser from BR146.de
The new Base Tunnel
Also in the nineties, Switzerland decided to stop highway construction and start the giant rail project of the NEue Alpen-Transversale (NEw Alpine Transit-routes, NEAT). The aim is for quasi-level (no steep climbs) routes with long tunnels across the base of mountains to carry the bulk of freight transit, and also high-speed trains. One line crosses the 57 km in-construction Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT), which, though half bored, may still be nine years from opening. The other is the LBT, built for political reasons not dissimilar to those behind the original line, but also as temporary solution until the GBT opens.
Bridges across the Rhône to the south-east portal at Raron, during construction two years ago. We are at the base of the mountain just below where the Re 465s above were photographed. Photo from the official site
Still, with traffic projections well below the capacity of a full twin-tube tunnel, economic reasons led to a partial construction.
Sketch map from the official site showing the now finished first phase of the LBT. Legend:
- Black: old Lötschberg line resp. Rhône valley line
- Zebra black: old Lötschberg tunnel (check the big bend in it!)
- Green: access and exploratory tunnels
- Green dots: portals
- Thick red: tunnel with tracks
- Zebra red: raw tunnel
- Thin red: open-air connecting sections
There is a two-kilometre buried tunnel beyond the north portal. The south-west portal at Steg will see rails at the same time the second tube is finished: the misty future
Work was not without problems, even if those problems weren't as grave as a century earlier. There was a workers' strike in one intermediate access, because there wasn't enough air when they worked on four tunnel faces – a second shaft had to be bored for ventilation. On the southern section, where tunnel boring machines (TBMs) munched away geotechnically less problematic stone, reaching layers with natural asbestos also led to a strike, and special solutions to make the workplace airtight. And on the very last stretch before the last holing-through two kilometres deep in the mountain, an unexpected coal-carrying problem zone slowed down work.
But all the problems have been mastered in the end. Digging finished 28 April 2005, then concrete has been poured, tracks have been laid, catenary has been drawn. Running tests started December 2006, even a German high-speed train came for tests up to 280 km/h (for 250 km/h service in the future). Freight trains started to cross in the framework of 'operative tests' from March.
The DB (German Railways) ICE-R (ex -S) high-speed test train enters the north portal in January. On 16 December, it took the Swiss speed record with 280 km/h (the prior record of 241 km/h was also in a then new tunnel). The ICE-S also holds the Austrian speed record (305 km/h), but not the German one. Photo from the official site
Finally on 15 June, the opening ceremony was held. The next day, pilot passenger service started, it takes 17 minutes across the tunnel. When full capacity service ensues from 9 December, express trains will cut 34 minutes in travel time.
Other rail projects opening in the near future
- I mentioned in the intro that the LGV Est Européenne that opened (for TGV Est Européen service) a week earlier.
- On the same date as the LBT, the new Betuweroute railway, built for freight trains from Rotterdam port to Germany, saw its first commercial train.
- On 14 November, the second leg of High Speed 1, ex Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) will finish the high-speed line into London, cutting another 20 minutes from Eurostar journey times.
- In December, the Madrid–Segovia–Valladolid/Medina del Campo high-speed line, which includes the world's then fourth longest tunnel, the 28,418.66 m long Guadarrama (rail) tunnel, will enter service.
- Also in December, the second and final section of the Córdoba–Málaga high-speed line shall be finished.
- Promised also for December, but it should be a miralce, the final leg of the Madrid–Barcelona high-speed line should be ready.
- On 1 December, the Antwerp–Amsterdam HSL 4/HSL Zuid high-speed will follow, albeit only with 160 km/h: due to unending problems with the new European signalling system ERTMS Lev 2, Thalys trains are scheduled for full speed only from October 2008.
- Though the track will be ready in December 2007, the Liège–Aachen high-speed line (HSL/LGV 3) in Belgium will see Thalys trains only a year later: the problem is again ERTMS Lev 2.
- Autumn 2008: Örnsköldsvik–Husum section of the Botniabanan in northern Sweden, a new mixed-traffic mainline.
- End of 2008: Milan–Bologna high-speed line, some sections already used as relief route for low-speed mainline.
- Also end of 2008: Bologna–Florence high-speed line, this one consists of a dozen long tunnels with brief glimpses of daylight in-between (also see my 'boring' Tunnels diary).
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