Swiss Tunnel Project Raises Hopes for High-Speed Rail

The shortest distance between two cities is underground.

For a variety of reasons, ranging from noise to snow, high-speed rail works better underground than on the surface. An underground route is a necessity when crossing the English Channel or any wide body of water by rail, but it also provides a significantly shorter route in any congested area or where there is uneven terrain, which includes most of the places where you would want to put a rail line. The future of high-speed rail, then, depends on the ability to create long tunnels deep underground.

With that in mind, this month’s new rail tunnel in Switzerland, the Gotthard Base Tunnel, is an encouraging sign. The 57-kilometer tunnel is the longest ever built, and is similar to the tunnel lengths that would be needed to cross the Bering Strait with a rail line. The tunnel was drilled in the challenging environment of the Swiss Alps, surely one of the more difficult places to put a rail tunnel.

The most encouraging thing about the tunnel, though, is its cost. At a projected final cost of $10 billion, it is less expensive than many smaller highway projects in the United States. The tunnel is, to be sure, a long-term project, with construction starting 17 years ago, and 7 more years needed to begin rail service.

But the cost of the project is easily justified by the shorter travel times for thousands of travelers and thousands of tons of freight every day, setting aside the tunnel’s many other advantages. Travel will be an hour shorter just from the shorter distance of the tunnel, and the underground location will make higher speeds possible for the trains. With shorter travel times, the new rail line will replace some trips now taken by road, air, and ocean with a less expensive or faster means of travel.

Eventually, the world’s cities will be connected by high-speed rail, much of it underground. The Gotthard Base Tunnel is an early example that shows how this can be done.

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