ON MAY 8 Swiss Federal Railways issued a statement saying that ’the Gotthard base tunnel is ready for construction to begin’. Four days later it announced the founding of AlpTransit Gotthard AG with start-up capital of SFr5m to plan and build the 57 km tunnel.

Both announcements followed the conclusion of a SFr110m programme of test boring to determine whether an outcrop of ’sugar dolomite’ rock in the Piora syncline about 35 km from the northern portal extended to the depth of the base tunnel alignment. The exploratory bores established that it did not, sparing the tunnellers a costly, difficult and time-consuming challenge.

Working from an exploratory gallery near Faido, SBB’s geological specialists checked a 200m wide corridor, finding the rock to be ’firm, compact and dry’. Tunnellers will face ’no unusual difficulties’, and rock blasting or use of a tunnel boring machine will be possible. The test bore programme was endorsed by the transport ministry’s geology committee, and remaining risks can be limited by checking the rock ahead of the main tunnelling works as they proceed.

So far, so good. There remains, as ever, the little matter of finance. Even this was beginning to look hopeful earlier this year, with heads of agreement on freight through the Alps accepted by Swiss Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger and European Transport Commissioner Neil Kinnock in January. The proposals provided for two-thirds of funds raised by lorry taxes to be used for rail projects such as AlpTransit (RG 3.98 p137). But despite more than three years of negotiations, European transport ministers failed in March to ratify the so-called Kloten agreement. Although a majority were in favour, six of the 15 EU member states raised objections, with Germany’s Matthias Wissmann the ringleader. The main difficulty centred on the level of lorry charges, which Germany and Italy found unacceptably high. Wissmann used a study by the German Institute of Economics Research to lambast the package, saying that it was ’not ready to be approved’. He also said that he could not ’accept any concept which requires a single lorry parking space on the German-Swiss frontier’.

AlpTransit is still subject to the whim of Swiss voters. Parliament has now decided that both the Gotthard and L