Efforts to improve the important pass routes date back to the beginning of history. They are generally blocked with snow in winter, so for centuries the Swiss have been tunnelling through them.
The very first tunnel in a Swiss Alpine pass, the “Urnerloch”, was built in 1707–1708 to ease the passage over the St Gotthard. It was 64 metres (210 feet) long. The first road tunnel under the Alps was the Great St Bernard linking Switzerland and Italy. It was opened in 1964.
Built more than 100 years ago, the 17km-long (10.5 miles) Gotthard railway tunnel was the longest tunnel of its kind until 2007 when the Lötschberg base tunnel (34.6km/21.5 miles) entered into service. Work on the second stage of the NEAT project, the 57km-long (35 miles) Gotthard base tunnel, is currently under way. It is set to open in 2016.
Tunnels, though, bring their own problems and the authorities face the constant challenge of balancing efficiency, safety and cost. Whatever they do, they will be criticised by one lobby or another.
Safety is paramount in the NEAT design, not only to avoid accidents in the first place, but to facilitate escape and rescue if necessary. There will be pairs of single-track tunnels, so that trains running in different directions are kept apart. These tunnels will be linked at regular intervals by cross passages. There will also be a number of side tunnels feeding into the main one.
In older tunnels safety procedures are under constant review.
Nevertheless, tunnels, especially road tunnels, will always offer more hazards than open areas, and rescue work is always more complicated.
In 2006, nine people were killed when a car collided with a truck in the Viamala tunnel in the canton of Graubünden. The fire in the Gotthard road tunnel in October 2001 was caused by a burst which slewed a truck into the opposite lane. It crashed into an oncoming truck carrying a cargo of tyres, which caught fire, spreading toxic fumes. Furthermore, extreme heat caused the cement facing of the tunnels to explode. Eleven people died. The problem of overcrowding in the tunnels is compounded by the fact that more and more trucks are carrying dangerous cargoes. The even worse Mont Blanc tunnel fire in 1999, which killed 39, occurred when a cigarette tossed from a vehicle set light to a truck carrying highly inflammable margarine.
Under safety measures introduced after the Gotthard fire, trucks are only allowed to enter the tunnel in one direction at a time, and there is supposed to be a set distance between them and they are forbidden to overtake. Waiting areas have been set up for the trucks – some of them 60 kilometers (40 miles) away. All this is highly unpopular among the drivers, who claim that whereas once they could cross Switzerland in four hours, they now have to reckon on 16. (The transport ministry in a January 2002 report put the average wait at the Gotthard at just under an hour, and the maximum at two and a half.)
Unfortunately time is money, and lorry drivers complain that they are paid according to distance driven, not time at the wheel. The result: they work far longer than the 46 hours per week laid down by the law. And that does nothing to improve safety.