One hundred years ago, Paris and Istanbul were finally linked by rail. Adrian Mourby reports

A century ago Europe reverberated to the sounds of tunnels being blasted through hills and mountains in an attempt to speed up the Continent's rail links. Most impressive of these was the 19.8km (12 mile) tunnel under the Simplon Pass which linked Italy and Switzerland. This modern wonder, the world's longest tunnel back then, completed a rail link between Paris and Istanbul and lent its name to the most glamorous train ever to cross Europe - the Venice Simplon Orient-Express.

Sixty men were killed during the seven years it took to build the Simplon Tunnel, a low body count which was considered a major achievement in itself. (More than 800 died while building the shorter St Gothard Tunnel.) Most of the victims were Italian, as memorials to the deceased testify: Pietro Tranferro of Treviso, Giuseppe Arduini of Urbino, Crescentino Zanchi of Pesaro.

What these men achieved was remarkable. The Brandt hydraulic drill made the rate of progress three times faster and cut down drastically on dust thus cutting the incidents of fatal lung disease among workers. The project also harnessed hydro-electric power from the nearby valleys to provide ventilation and light, making conditions inside the tunnel bearable, while the tunnel walls were sprayed with cold water to keep temperatures down to 30C (86F).

The excavation was not without problems. Two miles in from the Italian side, miners struck what is now known as The Great Spring, a huge underground river which burst into the tunnel at a rate of 10,000 gallons per minute. On the Swiss side engineers, making more rapid progress, suddenly hit a volcanic hot spring which released a scalding torrent of 1,600 gallons per minute. Costs spiralled whenever "bad ground" was encountered at a cost of £1,000 per yard to encase the tunnel on all sides with granite masonry eight-and-a-half feet thick.

But, at 7am on 24 February 1905, a heavy charge was exploded in the roof of the Italian heading which blew a hole into the floor of the Swiss excavations above and linked the two tunnels 7,000 feet below the Alpine peaks. Sadly, two visitors to the tunnel, who had travelled six miles in the dark to see this historic event, were killed by the sudden rush of hot water from the Swiss side. Nevertheless, 7,000 feet below the Alpine peaks the two teams finally met.

A week later, officials from Iselle di Trasquera on the Italian side travelled in a miner's train truck to the door that officially separated the two halves of the tunnel. With due ceremony a Colonel Locher-Freuler opened the door to greet Swiss officials from Brig im Simplon at this halfway point and the Bishop of Sion held a service to bless the tunnel and remember those who died. The tunnel itself was officially opened on 1 June 1906 by King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy.

The people of Domodossola were convinced that their tunnel, which remained the longest in Europe until 1982, would bring them prosperity. What had excited investors was its potential to speed up travel between northern Europe and Italy, even as far as Istanbul. Georges Nagelmackers' Orient-Express service had run for more than 20 years by 1905 but had snaked its way east from Paris around the Alps via Strasbourg, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest. To enter Italy via the Simplon Tunnel could shave half a day off the journey time to Venice. By 1921 the company was running an extended Simplon-Orient-Express route into Turkey.

The architect Luigi Boffa was employed to build a series of stylish gothic railway stations between Domodossola and Iselle while Brig declared itself one of the three great travel hubs of Europe along with Paris and Milan.

However, prosperity did not flow quite as the towns had predicted. Although 144 trains use the Simplon Tunnel every weekday, Brig remains a small town best known for its Renaissance Stockalperschloss and a 17th-century chapel that commemorates its deliverance from the plague.

Iselle, where car and foot passengers alight on the Italian side of the tunnel, is almost a ghost station, set in its deep valley. And the lofty Domodossola Stazione Internationale echoes today as you cross its lobby.

There is a limit to how much money you can make from a vehicle shooting past at 80mph.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Adrian Mourby travelled to Milan via Brig and Domodossola with Rail Europe (08705 848 848; www.raileurope.co.uk). Return fares from London, combining Eurostar and Lyria, cost from around £190.

Where to stay

The Hotel Victoria, Brig (00 41 27 923 15 03; www.minotel.ch), offers double rooms from 160 Swiss francs (£70) per night, including breakfast. The Hotel Internazionale, Domodossola (00 39 0324 481180; www.hotelresidenceinternazionale.com), offers double rooms from €80 (£54) per night, including breakfast.

Further information

Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).

"Pullman and The Orient Express", by George Behrend is available online at www.georgebehrend.co.uk.

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