A view inside the world's largest train tunnel, now under construction

A miner climbs on excavated rocks after a giant drill machine broke through at the final section Sedrun-Faido, at the construction site of the NEAT Gotthard Base Tunnel March 23, 2011. Crossing the Alps, the world's longest train tunnel should become operational at the end of 2016. The project consists of two parallel single track tunnels, each of a length of 57 km (35 miles).

(REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann)


  1. The Science Channel show “Build It Bigger” did an episode about this tunnel. Fascinating stuff.

  2. In two or three decades most of Europe and a lot of Asia should be hooked up with high speed rail. It’s going to be Eurasian travel a lot easier and a lot cheaper.

    Ironically it was always assumed that improving rail in Europe was a bad idea as plane and car had become the much preferred way of travel.

    That is until the channel train tunnel was built and a year later was shuttling more passengers across the English channel than every single aeroplace company combined.

    It’s great to finally see some progress being made after so many delays. It is going to be so much more comfortable and convenient when they have these services running and working together.

    1. I ain’t a miner, but I believe that entire disk is the drill bit. If the whole thing rotated in one direction, with the smaller wheels going the other way doing the actual digging, it *looks* like they’d cover the entire surface.

      I just love that design, by the way. Very Amarran. Is there a structural/mechanical reason for the art deco, or was it just designed by the “good taste where no one’s looking” kind of person?

      1. Considering what it does and where it does it, that bit probably has more engineering in it than the rest of the machine. Those channels are in that metal for a reason.

      2. I’d suspect, on a piece of industrial equipment like that, it’s all functional. There’ll be a reason why it looks that way – whether the grooves are to channel away swarf, let in cutting fluid, or whatever else. Maybe the burnished look has to do with the type of mineral it’s digging through?

        Of course we could be wrong and this could be the back end of the tunneler?

        1. Well, those scratch marks on the plates have got to come from something, so I’d wager this is the business end. It looks like the whole thing turns clockwise – each of the smaller bits has its own catchment plate, I’d guess to help scoop up the detritus.

          The only purely technical explanation I can contribute is wear. If the thing started as a single, very big, very expensive plate, then parts of it were patched as it wore down, then parts of THOSE were patched, I could see a pattern like this emerging. That may also explain the rounded corners and edges everywhere.

          1. Yup, that’s the cutter head. I just got to go see a couple of these machines that will be used for the Seattle light rail tunnel, very cool. Those wheel thingees are the cutters, they are replaced as needed during the dig from the other side of the cutter face. There’s enough room between the machine and the cutter head for people to move around. The whole thing is just awesome.

            And yeah, I was totally thinking Dune. The machine is a few hundred feet long, that’s just the leading edge of it.

    1. There are some videos of the first and second breakthrough where you can see what stood on the wall (the project name and the companies)
      2nd break @ official website: http://www.alptransit.ch/de/film/

      (the first was quite public with a lot of media coverage, the 2nd one was more like a party for the workers

      and eeerm this “hill” is only about 2100m high… so noooo you don’t simply cut into the hill.

  3. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains. The stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.

  4. I wonder what that sign on the lower right said. maybe “watch for giant burrowing machines”?

  5. AFAIK the small discs are freewheeling and cut rock just by creating stress fractures in the stone

    1. Says you….no seriously, all due respect, how do you know that? That is pretty cool that you do, seems like rarified knowledge. I read an in depth article in the New Yorker about this drill and the tunnel. Its truly mindboggling.

      There was quite a bit of controversy surrounding it being built on the heels of the most horrific tunnel fire, in the 80’s I think?, that killed quite a few people.

  6. “most of Europe and a lot of Asia should be hooked up with high speed rail.”

    But not Michigan, or Wisconsin. They’re keeping their bodily fluids pure.

  7. Looks to me like Scott Carey just got all bookworm-industrial and bored his way through a shelf of Goethe.

  8. Does anybody know what the giant writing is in the lower right quarter of the picture, just below the drill? It almost looks like giant newsprint and gives a weird trompe l’oeil effect, as though the drill and miner are tiny.

    1. They tunneled into a chamber they already dug. Whist I don’t speak whatever version of Swiss that is, I can imagine it says “Keep back – multi thousand ton TBM appearing shortly” (or something similar)

    2. It is part of a list of companies involved in the drilling project.

      “Alpine Bau” (Alpine Building)
      “Hochtief” (Highlow)

      That picture was taken right after the breakthrough ceremony.

  9. This was probably taken right after, or even during, the breaking through ceremony. You can see something being projected onto the wall at the top left corner. It probably said something like “this is where the TBM is going to come out” plus a bunch of facts and logos and stuff.

    In fact, here’s a video showing exactly that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTSwppnahFQ

    1. Jesus you guys! You gotta go see the Youtube video echocolate linked! Its like Mothra meets civil engineering meets porn. WWFS! What Would Freud Say?

      NSFW, OK it is, but when you see this you’ll see what I mean.

    2. Jesus you guys! You gotta go see the Youtube video echocolate linked! Its like Mothra meets civil engineering meets porn. WWFS! What Would Freud Say?

      NSFW, OK it is, but when you see this you’ll see what I mean.

    3. That video is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. Seriously, I’m not jizzing in my pants like the other commentor above apparently is, but anyone who wasn’t going to watch – you must.

      The photo is fantastic as well. Very cool stuff.

      I just applied for a job as a geologist for a company doing tunneling in China (based out of Hong Kong). I’m really excited about it because I fit the job description to a “T” and I feel I have an excellent chance at getting the job.

      Now that I’ve seen this, I feel even better about it, because tunneling is clearly simply awesomely amazing and as a geologist working on these kinds of projects I would certainly be seeing a lot of this stuff up close.

      Of course, this also means the let-down when I don’t get the job will be even worse ;) (I’ve been trying to find a job for over a year with no luck…)

  10. Here’s a short National Geographic video on the tunnel boring machines (TBMs) for the Chunnel – look at 1:00 in for an animation and timelapse footage of how these things work. And be amazed at the sheer size of these beasty …

    Incidentally, I once came across an entry in the Yellow Pages which read:



  11. Awesome photo in the real sense: truly awe-inspiring!

    Is it just me, or does it look like the miner guy has no feet? It’s really weird – like his orange pant legs are hollow!

  12. Ha! I go to school in Ticino, the same Swiss canton where much of this construction is taking place, and we got to go down into the tunnel for a tour two years ago. Claustrophobic as hell, but fascinating. And seeing those huge drill bits in front of you is something amazing, let me tell you.

    1. What? Ctrl+F “Balrog” yields no hits? BB, I’m shocked!

      You shall not pass! CRRRRRRRRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAACK SQUIIIISH. Awww crap, so much for that.

  13. Yes, I realize the EU is also involved with the current situation in Libya. It would be nice however to see the USA concentrating its efforts on large scale, national infrastructure projects like we used to.

    1. EU? That tunnel is in Switzerland, which happens not to be part of the European Union.

      I actually think building tunnels is actually a defining part of our swiss culture. The french or german are much more likely to just make some giant cut into a hill to build a railroad; but here we sure as hell will build a tunnel.

      1. I would make a guess that both France and Germany have to deal with a different kind of “hill” than Switzerland and Austria.

  14. I was lucky enough to work in the tunnel boring industry for a few years and it really is one the most awesome sights when these machines “break through” into a subway station or reception shaft.

    If you’re interested, there is an animation on youtube of this particular machine showing how it all works: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yFHrI3HFMDg

  15. If those boring machines could be used to bore down instead of sideways, we could have all the geothermal energy we want.

  16. Since all the good pop culture references are taken I guess I’ll go with…

    “Behold, the UNDERMINER! I am always beneath you… but nothing is beneath ME! I declare war on peace and happiness! Soon all will tremble before me!”

  17. Eventually we’ll bore our way to the D’Ni cavern, and then I’m linking the hell out of here.

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