Swiss blast their way through Alps for historic rail link

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The Independent Online

Swiss engineers have blasted through the last few metres of rock to complete a new Alpine rail tunnel that could change the face of European transport.

Swiss engineers have blasted through the last few metres of rock to complete a new Alpine rail tunnel that could change the face of European transport.

Drilling ended yesterday on the Loetschberg tunnel, the world's third longest rail tunnel, hailed as a giant step forward for Europe.

"With the breakthrough we have carved out the mountain for all to see. We are moving on," said Moritz Leuenberger, Switzerland's Transport Minister, who told guests at a special ceremony that the Swiss were helping "to build Europe". About 1,000 people watched in the tunnel as an engineer blew three warning blasts before an explosion ripped through the rock.

The Loetschberg tunnel is just over 21 miles long and links Frutigen, near the capital Bern, with Raron. The massive engineering project is one of a series of tunnels designed to help move lorries off the narrow highways of Switzerland, Austria and France and on to shuttle trains of the type used in the Channel Tunnel. For Alpine countries, environmental and safety problems have been growing rapidly; more than 4,000 heavy lorries cross the Swiss Alps by road every day leading to traffic jams, air pollution and accidents.

When it is completed in 2007, the Loetschberg tunnel should shorten the journey time between Germany and Milan by an hour. Only the tunnel linking the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido in Japan, and the Channel Tunnel are longer.

The Swiss project includes a parallel tunnel, due for completion in 2015. The second rail route, the Gotthard rail tunnel, will measure 60km - making it the longest in the world - and will reduce the journey time from Zurich to Milan to two-and-a-half hours.

But, at a cost of more than €10bn (£6.8bn), the project is well over budget and 11 people have been killed during construction.

During the next decade two further transalpine routes are due to be built as part of an effort to get more freight traffic off the roads and on to the railways. One tunnel under the Brenner Pass, due to be completed by 2015, would link Verona and Munich. The other would connect Milan and Lyon and is scheduled for completion by 2015-17.

Though funding has been a key problem, there was a recent breakthrough when EU transport ministers reached agreement on the so-called "Eurovignette", which sets up a charging structure for tolls.

The deal will allow operators to charge a premium over and above the cash needed to repay construction costs, which are estimated to be in the order of €6bn (£4bn) for the Brenner tunnel alone, helping to make the projects economically viable. However they will still expect significant EU funding which has yet to be allocated.

A spokesman for Jacques Barrot, the EU transport commissioner said: "The Eurovignette is a significant breakthrough.

"If we now have an ambitious agreement on the EU's financial perspectives for the years 2007-13, we can do business."