The Gotthard Rail Tunnels

On June 1st, 2016, the longest rail tunnel in the world, the 35 mile Gotthard Base Tunnel was, opened. It was a technical achievement that took 17 years to finish and unites northern and southern Europe by allowing passage via high speed trains through some of the most forbidding mountains in the world. What shouldn't be forgotten in this success, however, is that another rail tunnel, also the longest in the world at the time, was dug though these same mountains almost a century and a half earlier. It was an achievement that changed the face of commerce and travel across 19th century Europe and a Wonder of the Age of Steam.

Seven Quick Facts
-Engineer credited with designing the route: Robert Gerwig.
-Length of the main tunnel: 9.3 miles (15km) - Longest in the world at the time.
-Chief Engineer of main tunnel: Louis Favre
-Number of spiral approach tunnels: Five.
-Dates of construction of main tunnel: 1872 to 1881.
-Number of deaths during construction (estimated):177.
-Opening date of the Gotthard Railway: May 22nd of 1882

The Alps Mountains, running through the heart of Europe, had for centuries been a barrier to easy travel from the northern side of the continent to the southern regions. With the invention of the steam locomotive in the early part of the 19th century, railways quickly spread over much of Europe, but a short and efficient connection through this section of the Alps was missing.

In 1850, the Swiss government hired two of the most respected engineers in the world, Robert Stephenson (whose father had invented the steam locomotive) and H. Swinburne, to advise them on the best method of making a railway connection through the Alps. The pair proposed a route through the eastern Alps that would have run from Lake Constantine to Ticino and then onto Milan. Rather than a simple railway connection, however, the plan called for a short, tunnel, high in the mountains, that would be reached by a special, steep incline railway that used a cable or cog system. This would have necessitated the transfer people and goods several times between different types of trains to get them over the mountains, making the route very inefficient.

Originally, this course was supported by Alfred Escher, an influential Swiss businessman in the area of banking and railroads. Escher had been instrumental in pushing Switzerland to expand its rail routes in late 1849 when he feared that rail development in Europe would bypass his tiny Alpine country.

A crew comes out of one of the tunnels riding a work train in 1875.

The eastern Alp line was never built and eventually Escher decided that the Gotthard route was more promising. He threw all his influence behind the project and by 1869 a decision was made to start construction on the Gotthard railway. The next year Escher helped found the Gotthard Railway Company which would build and operate the line. The project, however, proved to be an engineering challenge of the highest caliber.

The Gotthard Pass

The Saint-Gotthard Massif was the mountain range through which the railroad would have to thread itself. With peaks as high as 10,500 feet (3,192 m), the best way through the range was the Gotthard Pass. This pass through the mountains had been known since ancient times, but was little used because of the difficulty of crossing the turbulent Reuss River which intersected the path. Crossing the Reuss was especially hard in the early summer when it was swollen with snowmelt. With the construction of a wooden bridge in around 1220, however, the trail was opened for use with horses and pack mules.

With a height of 6,909 feet (2,106 m), this original trail was too difficult a climb for a normal railroad. It wasn't the height so much, but the steepness of the path leading to the pass. Normal railroad trains can only climb about 2 feet for every 100 feet of distance they travel. If a train tries to climb a slope steeper than that, its wheels slip. Specialty railroads can get around this by using cables or a cog gear that hold the cars to a special part of the track, but this wasn't a solution that would allow normal trains to travel the Gotthard pass.

Clever Spiral Tunnels

Louis Favre

German Engineer Robert Gerwig was charged with coming up with a route through the mountains that would solve this problem. Gerwig's solution required a 9.3 mile (15km) tunnel under the pass itself along with five additional spiral tunnels on the approach to the pass. These clever spiral tunnels would allow the trains to gain height slowly by increasing the distance the train would travel. The tracks would dive into a tunnel, then slowly climb upwards on a large curve until the tracks emerged from the rock at a higher altitude, but roughly the same location. This ingenious arrangement allowed the train to gain height, while not making the track itself too steep.

These spiral tunnels, while shrewd engineering, were not unique to the Gotthard line and had been used on the Brenner railway in 1867. The most difficult part of the project, instead, was the long tunnel under the pass. A tunnel this long had never been built before and would require a chief engineer of rare talent. The man for the task turned out to be Swiss engineer, Louis Favre.

Louis Favre

Favre was born in 1826, the son of a carpenter in a small village just outside Geneva. He was not a well-schooled man, but acquired his trade by observation and took night classes to learn whatever else he needed.

On August 7th, 1872, Favre and his company won the contract to build the main tunnel by underbidding 6 other companies. He promised it would take only eight years and 56 million Swiss francs to complete the job: one year and 12.5 million francs less than the next lowest bid by his competition. This turned out to be a serious miscalculation by Favre. While he would successfully complete the tunnel and it would be considered his crowning achievement, it would also lead to his financial ruin and ultimately his death.

On September 18th, 1872, construction of the main tunnel commenced. Two crews bored into the rock from each side, expecting to meet somewhere about 4 miles under the mountain. When they finally did, the two tunnels they built were only 13 inches (33 cm) off from each other horizontally and two inches off (5 cm) vertically. For the 19th century, it was an amazing feat of engineering by Favre and his crew.

Inside the tunnel today. (Photo by Kecko. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

On earlier projects, black powder had been used as an explosive to excavate such tunnels. Later nitroglycerin (sometimes called "blasting oil") was employed. While nitro was more powerful than black powder, making the work go faster, it also was very unstable and difficult to handle. Dropping it could initiate a blast at the wrong time, killing dozens of workers. The Gotthard project was the first tunnel to use the newly-invented product dynamite instead. Dynamite had the power of nitro but was in a solid form that included substances that made it less prone to be set off by a shock, making the work of excavating with explosives much safer.

Even with using the newly-invented dynamite, however, the job was a herculean effort, slowed by both technical and geological glitches. On several occasions, large amounts of water broke into the tunnel, causing the roof to collapse on the construction crews. It is estimated that a total of 177 people were killed before the completion of the project.

It is little wonder that between low wages and high danger, Favre found himself faced with discontent from his employees. During 1875, a strike by Italian tunnel workers was brutally suppressed by the Swiss Army. Four people died and 13 other were wounded in the incident.

Legal disputes with his lender bank and the construction subdivision of the Gotthard Railway Company further delayed the effort. Eventually the tunnel was completed 10 months late. This was a financial disaster for Favre as the contract he had agreed upon fined him 5,000 francs for each day he went over schedule for the first 6 months and 10,000 francs for each day after that. Favre's company was driven into bankruptcy. Even worse, however, Favre himself died four months prior to the completion of the excavation.

Favre's Death

On July 19, 1879, Favre and two others took an inspection tour of the tunnel. Chief engineer in charge of that section of the tunnnel, M. E. Stockalper, was with him, along with a visiting French engineer. Stockalper had observed over the past few months that the pressure of running the difficult and financially-failing project seemed to be making Favre age prematurely and was concerned about him. As an account of that day written by general secretary of the company, Maxime Helene explained:

Favre's body is carried from the tunnel.

"Up to the end of the inspection he had complained of nothing, but, according to his habit, went along examining the timbers, stopping at different points to give instructions, and making now and then a sally at his friend, who was unused to the smell of dynamite. In returning he began to complain of internal pains. "My dear Stockalper," said he, "take my lamp, I will join you." At the end of ten minutes not seeing him return, M. Stockalper exclaimed, "Well! M. Favre, are you coming?" No answer. The visitor and engineer retraced their steps, and when they reached Favre he was leaning against the rocks with his head resting upon his breast. His heart had already ceased to beat. A train loaded with excavated rock was passing and on this was laid the already stiff body of him who had struggled up to his last breath to execute a work all science and labor."

The railway itself opened on May 22nd of 1882 and it the way changed travel was done in Europe. Before the line initiated operations, it is estimated an average of 80,000 people and 40,000 tons of material passed through the Gotthard pass per year using an old road. In the years following the opening of the railroad, those figures jumped to 250,000 people and 300,000 tons. By 1908, the figures had further increased to 750,000 passengers and 900,000 tons of goods.

So Favre's tunnel and the railway it supported went on to be an unqualified success.

On February 29th of 1880, when a small opening was made between the two tunnel excavations working north and south to meet under the mountain, a tin canister was pushed through the tiny gap first. The canister bore the image of Favre, so that despite his death, he came to be the first person to pass through the tunnel. Written in French on the back of the can were the words: "Who else would deserve to be first to go through? He was our champion, friend and father. Long live the Gotthard!"

A map of part of the route, showing two of the spiral tunnels.


Copyright Lee Krystek 2016. All Rights Reserved.