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Cue the winged cherubs and couples in underwear: world’s longest [rail] tunnel opens

Sydney Morning Herald, 2 June 2016
The world’s longest and deepest railway tunnel opened underneath the Swiss Alps, to an opening ceremony featuring acrobats dressed as miners, that has raised eyebrows online. The 60-km-long Gotthard Base Tunnel will allow high-speed rail travel across the Alps between northern and southern Europe for the first time.

Built at a cost of £8.3 billion ($16.5 billion) and 17 years in the making, the tunnel was hailed as a marvel of ecological engineering that will help to preserve the environment of the Alps.

“Today is a historic day for our country,” Johann Schneider-Ammann, the Swiss president, said. “We have completed the Gotthard Base Tunnel, an epic feat of engineering, a project that has involved generations, from the first sketches, to the planning and construction of the tunnel. I feel extremely proud, but also quite humble.”

The tunnel was officially inaugurated on Wednesday in an extraordinary ceremony reminiscent of the opening to the London Olympics in 2012.

International leaders looked on as acrobats dressed as miners swung from the rafters and a horse-drawn carriage bolted past at the gallop. Other bizarre sequences featured a performer dressed as what appeared to be a winged cherub and male and female dancers in matching white underwear. Audiences online reacted with a mixture of scorn and fascination.

In a separate ceremony, the tunnel was blessed by a Catholic priest, a Protestant pastor, a rabbi and an imam.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, Francois Hollande, the French president, and Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, were all in attendance to mark the opening of a link that is expected to provide a major economic boost for all their countries.

The tunnel will cut the journey time between Zurich and Milan to just two hours and 40 minutes, and 65 passenger trains are to use it each day.

But it is freight transport the tunnel is expected to revolutionise, with as many as 265 goods trains running through it a day.

The Swiss government says the tunnel will allow one million lorries carrying freight to pass underneath the Alps each year, massively reducing the vehicles’ environmental impact.

It is part of a scheme backed by voters in a referendum to move all freight passing through Switzerland from road to rail.

The 60-km-long tunnel travels more than 2 kms below the surface at its deepest. Engineers had to dig through 73 different kinds of rock and excavate more then 27 million tons of rubble.

Nine miners who lost their lives during the construction were honoured at the opening ceremony.

Yet, true to Switzerland’s reputation, the mammoth project was finished on time – which has left several of its neighbours struggling to keep up.

Italy is not expected to have its access routes ready to carry high-speed trains to the tunnel until 2020, while in Germany it is feared it could take another 20 years to connect it to the high-speed rail network.

Regular passenger services are not due to start until December.

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