WORK began on construction of the southern section of the 57 km Gotthard base tunnel on July 10 with a ceremonial blast at the Bodio worksite, where a 1·2 km access shaft will take tunnellers to the alignment of the main bore. The base tunnel will not open until 2012, and access for 4m high lorries on piggyback trains may have to wait until 2018, the current completion date for the Ceneri base tunnel further south. But already traffic using the Gotthard motorway has reached the point where the road tunnel can no longer handle demand in peak periods, typically for 40 days in winter and 75 in summer. This has prompted calls for a second road tunnel to be built, for which the earliest possible opening date would also be 2012.

A short-term alternative being canvassed by the government is to reinstate car-carrier shuttles through the existing Gotthard rail tunnel that were withdrawn when the motorway opened in the early 1980s. SBB suggests that, subject to completion of works to rebuild the former loading stations at a cost of SFr80m, four car-carrier trains an hour in each direction could be running by 2004 at weekends and holidays, with two an hour on weekdays. Capacity could be stepped up substantially after opening of the base tunnel.

One factor influencing future decisions will be the outcome of a study into tunnel safety on the Swiss rail network instigated after road tunnel safety checks following fatal accidents in France and Austria. Of the 700 rail bores, 175 are longer than 400m, and 27 of them are to have safety improvements by 2005 that include construction of escape routes and better lighting and signage. The Swiss Ministry of Transport noted earlier this year that the probability of accidents in tunnels is less than on open line, and that there had been only two accidents with fatal consequences in SBB’s tunnels in the last 70 years.