Learning through doing

8 June 2016

TODAY CELEBRATIONS are underway in Switzerland as the world’s longest railway tunnel opens. It is 1 June, and stakeholders and political figures are attending a day-long programme of events at the tunnel, prior to a festival for the people involved in the project which is due to take place tomorrow.

The 57km twin tube Gotthard base tunnel is considered by some to be the first of the first of the “21st Century tunnels” and was brought into being to provide a relatively fl at and low crossing of the Alps for freight and passenger trains. It will take significant amounts of traffic off the roads in the Alpine passes.

The project throws out impressive challenges pretty much wherever you look. Half a century from concept to realisation, 152km of total excavation, boreholes up to 2,000m deep, the ‘hourglass sand’ weathered dolomite of the Piora Mulde syncline, 2,300m maximum overburden.

Tunnels and Tunnelling reported in March 2011 that AlpTransit promised to deliver the tunnel to Swiss Federal Railways in May 2016. Again, impressive. The industry is rightly celebrating, but it is also important to remember the failures and improve on past efforts.

In addition to the celebrations on 1 June, a more solemn ceremony was held on 31 May in remembrance of the nine people who lost their lives on the project. Four came from Germany, three from Italy, one from South Africa and one from Austria. The efforts at the Bodio site cost three lives, Faido two lives, Sedrun two lives and Amsteg one life. Traffic was halted and the names of the deceased were read out and a memorial plaque unveiled.

Any death on a construction project is a tragedy, but the industry is progressed by these technically challenging projects, and there is some solace to be had here. The safety culture in Switzerland has changed significantly in the last few decades, and especially since the start of the Alpine megaprojects and the breaking out of tunnelling into its own insurance category. Other changes include diesel particulate filters, restrictions on dry mix shotcrete, rear-view cameras on plant, fire-extinguishing requirements, working temperature and humidity limits. A lot of good things.

It is then worth looking to history to see the changes that can come from technical and cultural advancement. The first Gotthard tunnel, constructed over 100 years ago, resulted in 177 deaths for 15km of tunnel. The Gotthard road tunnel driven in the 1970s took 17 lives for a 17km drive. Hopefully the next generation of megaprojects can reach zero