Just three weeks before the public opening of Switzerland’s 57 kilometer rail tunnel, we have officially become pioneers.
That's right. We even have a red passport with a stamp in it to prove it. And if we think about the thrill of the experience, we can still feel our hearts pounding…
Experiencing the future onboard Gottardino
For train travelers in Switzerland, life is about to change in a drastic way. My family and I were among the first to experience the revolution that is the Gotthard base tunnel, also called the world’s longest shortcut.
On board the limited Gottardino train, we traveled through the brand new rail tunnel, only to return across the soon-to-be-historic Gottardo route.
Through the course of this exciting day, we got to climb a mountain pass, see freshly fallen snow, and gaze at a beautiful lake scenery in central Switzerland. And as if this was not enough, we went deep into the heart of the Gottardo. Some 800 meters inside the mountain, we got off the train to take a closer look at this wonder of Swiss engineering.
Let me first say this: I am happy about the new base tunnel. But I will definitely miss the pleasure of traveling the regular Gotthard route. The helical tunnels, passing through amazing mountain landscapes, the church of Wassen which you can see from three different vantage points as you descend from the pass.
On top, the excitement of seeing the first fresh snow of the season, like the one we encountered just now. Those who are romantically attached to the old Gotthard route need not worry. It will still be running for local and tourist trains.
Inside the Gottardo tunnel
Crossing the Alps is always fun. But crossing it back on a super-modern Gottardino train that takes you right to the heart of the mountain is an entirely different thing. Especially if the trip includes a 45 minutes stop *inside* the tunnel where you are allowed to explore the multi-functional station of Sedrun.
Words cannot describe the exhilarating feeling of walking inside the world's longest railway tunnel. But let me give it a try: First of all, it’s hot. At 31 degrees Celsius, it was actually very hot to the point where I felt a weird tingle all over my body.
It is a feeling of awareness that you are exploring an uncharted environment, but you cannot really explain why. The tunnel itself is almost ordinary, like an undecorated underground station. The thought of 57 kilometers of tunnel before and after you is really what strikes.
Safety comes first inside Gottardo
The multi-functional train station is set in one of the safety tunnels on the side of the main railway tunnel. There, our unique Pioneer Passports provided a guided tour of all the different displays where you can learn about the history of the tunnel, its development, and the positive impact it will have on transport, traffic and environment for the whole of Europe.
We learned that this tunnel is a masterpiece of planning and engineering. In short: It is the perfect image of Swiss efficiency and perfection.
We also got explanations for all the different pipes and doors and switches and paths around the tunnel. This sort of underground scavenging hunt for engineers was great fun... And of course, there was the train conductor and the rest of the Gotthard tunnel staff, ready to answer our questions.
Does it feel claustrophobic spending almost an hour inside the tunnel, deep in the mountains?
I am not a claustrophobic person. But I must tell you, it gets to you after a while. Especially the hot, slightly stuffy air… The fresh bottled water provided by the Gottardino staff at the beginning of our travel proved to be a life-saver, along with the Bündner Nusstorte (Graubünden nut pastry) they gave us once we got back on the train.
After such an impressive adventure, we really needed a tasty sugary treat! It was a demanding experience for our bodies, and after exiting the tunnel, we felt as tired as if we had just accomplished a long hike.
The train ride took us back to Lugano. But before, we got the chance to explore a tiny craft market with products from the region (honey, cheese and other assorted goodness). There, we exchanged opinions with other fellow train fanatics who shared our passion for the Gottardo base tunnel...
The future is now
While the Gottardo base tunnel has not been officially opened to the general public, the Swiss Railways already use it from time to time. Without notice, a few trains have gone through the "shortcut", taking passengers by total awe and surprise. Also, their journeys were suddenly 30 minutes shorter and they arrived home earlier than expected…