GenevaLunch photo album, Gotthard base tunnel, April 2009 below the ground and October 2010, piercing the hole
Noise, dust, the weight of the Earth press down on men who doggedly dig our tunnels
Gotthard Pass, Switzerland (GenevaLunch) – Those of us who spend our lives above ground are hard pressed to imagine what it is like to descend into the bowels of the Earth every day to clock in for work. The past two months have had the public imagination focused on the hellish side of that work, watching 33 Chilean miners trapped underground by a mining cave-in.
Friday 15 October another face to that work was shone to the world, when 17 years of drilling deep inside the Swiss Alps resulted in the final hole between two tunnels being pierced.
The workers shouted, cheered, splashed champagne and carried the ultimate symbol of comradery, their beloved statues of St Barbara, patron saint of mine safety, from one side of the tunnel hole to the other.
The workers who have drilled, transported, and built casings for the Gotthard base tunnel, operating at depths that sometimes reach nearly 2 km underground, have seen the light of day, or at least of the other side of the Alps underground, and it’s no small feat.
In April 2009 I spent most of a day in the tunnel with a small group of journalists. The atmosphere was very different from that of today, 15 October, when the tunnel was pierced and lights were shining everywhere, champagne was flowing.
The high level of security and professionalism observed all the time by everyone struck us immediately, and it was contagious. Taking a series of elevators down that far is daunting and while the men were friendly they, too fell quiet as the machines pulled us far below the surface and into the true heart of the Alps.
Comradery, faith remain important for workers
Unlike today, with TV crews and other women joining the workers and champagne in abundance, there are two strict rules Down Below: no women workers and no alcohol. No women in tunnels is the rare exception to equal rights legislation largely because safety is an overwhelming priority and any distractions, including alcohol and women, that might add to the risk, are taboo.
It was deafeningly noisy, all the time, and while helmets dim the sound, the vibrations from the huge tunneling machine never disappear.
Lighting is either weak or glaring and, the sense that you are in a place far beyond the reach of help if anything goes wrong never really leaves you.
The workers joke, like any construction workers, and those who have found jobs in this tunnel are some of the best in the world: it’s clear they know their business and they don’t spend their days worrying.
But the statue of St Barbara, in her niche, gets a nod from passing workmen on a regular basis.
The tunnel is a masterpiece of engineering, which we will look at later but Friday 15 October, it’s time to cheer the workers who go Down Under every day to shave a couple hours off European north-south travel time for the rest of us, starting in 2017.
They’ve poked a huge hole in the Alps, and the mountains are still standing. Pretty soon, we’ll take it for granted.
Links to other sites:
“The New Gotthard Rail Link”, pdf, brochure by Alp Transit, in English, including technical descriptions
TSR video of the piercing of the tunnel