The Gotthard Base Tunnel is one of the most remarkable engineering projects of the 21st century. It took 17 years to build the 57-kilometers (35,5-mile) tunnel through the Alps between Erstfeld and Bodio, Switzerland. The tunnel serves as a vital rail link between northern and southern Europe. Now, due to a freight train derailment, the Gotthard Base Tunnel will be closed to passenger traffic until 2024.
According to Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), an SBB Cargo train carried 30 freight cars from Italy north through the Gotthard Base Tunnel last Thursday. The cars were successfully inspected in Chiasso, a town on the Swiss side of the border with Italy. Except for one sticking brake, which was corrected in a subsequent inspection in Bellinzona, the freight train entered the tunnel in operating condition.
However, the 16 freight cars derailed inside the Gotthard Base Tunnel. The Swiss Transport Safety Investigation Board believes that a broken wheel caused the derailment. Fragments of wheel discs indicate that the train continued for several kilometers with a broken wheel before finally derailing. The cars destroyed the tracks and spilled wine, soft drinks and other goods along the tunnel.
In a statement, SBB has revealed how massive the repair project will be:
“Extensive investigations have revealed that the scale of the damage is considerably greater than initial assessments suggested. In total, around 8 kilometers of track and 20,000 concrete sleepers need to be replaced. The track bed is severely damaged in the area of the Faido cross-over. It will take several months to replace all the damaged components of the railway installations. SBB currently assumes that both tunnel tubes will be available for limited rail traffic at the beginning of 2024.”
While the eight kilometers (five miles) of track are being replaced, only one of the two tubes of the Gotthard Base Tunnel will be in operation. The single tube will be used for freight traffic. Passenger trains will now take a "panoramic" detour, in the words of the SBB. The detour will add one to two hours to the trip across the Alps, and most passengers will have to change trains to complete their journey. Hopefully, the panoramic route won't be the only one that's too long in 2024.