The Gotthard Rail Tunnel, a 15 kilometre (9 miles) long railway tunnel, is the summit of the Gotthardbahn. It connects Göschenen with Airolo and was the first tunnel through the Gotthard massif. It is built as one double-track, standard gauge tunnel.
The tunnel rises from the northern portal at Göschenen (1106 m, or 3650 ft) and the highest point (1151 m, or 3800 ft) is reached after about 8 km (5 mi). After two more kilometers, the border between canton of Uri and canton Ticino is reached, and after another 5 km (3 mi) the tunnel ends at the southern portal near Airolo (1142 m, or 3770 ft). The trip takes about 7 to 8 minutes by the trains operated by SBB inside Switzerland.
The tunnel was built from 1871 to 1881. Construction was surveyed by the Swiss engineer Louis Favre
, who suffered a fatal heart attack inside the tunnel in 1879. Construction was difficult due to financial, technical and geological issues, the latter leading to the death of around 200 workers (the exact number is not known) mainly due to water inrushes; many were also killed by the compressed air-driven trains
carrying excavated material out of the tunnel. A strike of the workers in 1875 was crushed by the Swiss Army
, killing four and wounding 13.
There is a memorial for the dead workers near the station building at Airolo, created by the artist Vincenzo Vela.
The tunnel was opened for traffic in 1882, operated by the private railway company Gotthardbahn which ran from Lucerne
at the Italian border. The Gotthardbahn was integrated into the Swiss Federal Railways
in 1909. Shortly after, in 1920, the first electric trains
ran through the Gotthard Tunnel; however, the voltage had to be reduced from the desired 15 kilovolts to 7.5 kV, because the grime on the insulators from the then still used steam engines
caused the high voltage to spark over.
Until the opening of the Gotthard Road Tunnel, the Swiss Federal Railways offered piggyback services for cars and trucks through the Gotthard Tunnel. Today, that service exists as the Rolling Highway from the German to the Italian border and aims to reduce truck traffic on Swiss expressways. An improvisational piggyback service from Göschenen to Airolo was offered during the two months closure of the Gotthard Road Tunnel in 2001.
The nearby Gotthard Road Tunnel was opened in 1980. A second railway tunnel, the Gotthard Base Tunnel
is currently being constructed.
The adjacent ramps include several turn tunnels (see Table of turn tunnels