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World’s longest rail tunnel of 57 kilometers opens under Swiss Alps

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Humanity’s achievements in science and technology and innovative techniques have been on the rise since the industrial revolution, giving rise to new heights in innovative methodology. From airplanes, electricity, rail engines to remote technological innovations, computers and advanced mobiles, man has made tremendous strides in all walks of life, making life both easy and complicated at the same time.

From tunnels of a less than a kilometer first for the people to move on and then for the motor vehicles to pass through speedily, the stage has now set for a long tunnel rail journey covering a record 57 kilometers in Switzerland. Seventeen years after construction crews started boring beneath the Swiss Alps, the world’s longest, deepest tunnel officially opened on June 01. Fittingly for a project billed as Switzerland’s “construction of the century,” the Gotthard Base Tunnel was inaugurated amid colorful, sometimes surreal scenes, with visiting dignitaries treated to costumed dancers, fireworks and plenty of yodeling and alphorns.

The world’s longest and deepest rail tunnel has officially opened in Switzerland, after almost two decades of construction work. The 57km (35-mile) twin-bore Gotthard base tunnel will provide a high-speed rail link under the Swiss Alps between northern and southern Europe. Gotthard overtakes the 53.9-kilometer Seikan Tunnel in northern Japan as the longest rail tunnel in the world, relegating the 50.5-kilometer Channel Tunnel between Britain and France into third place. The tunnel, at 35.5 miles, is not only the longest in the world but also the deepest. It is easy to forget that thousands of workers spent 20 years on the project, drilling through the rugged terrain to excavate 28 million tons of rock and to construct the tunnel and tracks.

In a speech to guests in Erstfeld, near the northern entrance to the tunnel, Swiss Federal President Johann Schneider-Ammann said it was a “giant step for Switzerland but equally for our neighbours and the rest of the continent”. Afterwards two trains set off in opposite directions through the tunnel, each carrying hundreds of guests who had won tickets in a draw, and the new route was formally open. A lavish show then got under way for the assembled guests in Erstfeld, with dancers, acrobats, singers and musicians celebrating Alpine culture and history. European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern also attended the historic day’s events. European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi joined Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann on the first official journey on the line. The presence of high-level guests at the opening shows that the new tunnel is about more than protecting the Alpine environment.

Hollande, who took part with others in a follow-up trip through the tunnel on a train, emerged on the southern side to give a speech in which he compared the Gotthard to the Channel Tunnel. Recalling the great Franco-British project, which was completed in 1994, he said: “Nobody could have imagined that one day you would be able to travel from England to France in that way.” The presence of high-level guests at the opening shows that the new tunnel is about more than protecting the Alpine environment. The French leader went on to praise European aspirations, including the free movement of people and goods.

A live relay carried a speech from the southern end of the tunnel, in Bodio, by the Swiss federal transport minister, Doris Leuthard. The train leaves the Swiss Alps’ station and soon enters total darkness. It picks up speed, reaching 125 mph as it hurtles through the mountain at depths of up to 7,500 feet. Temperatures in the tunnel exceed 100 degrees, but for those of us making Wednesday’s inaugural trip, the smooth ride is comfortably cool.

As it is known, Europe’s goods, whether Italian wine for the Netherlands or German cars for Greece, have to cross the Alps. Now they will able to do so more quickly, more safely, and more cheaply, our correspondent says. The project, which cost more than $12bn (£8.3bn) to build, was endorsed by Swiss voters in a referendum in 1992. Voters then backed a proposal from environmental groups to move all freight travelling through Switzerland from road to rail two years later.

The tunnel’s course is flat and straight instead of winding up through the mountains like the old rail tunnel and a road tunnel opened in 1980. About 260 freight trains and 65 passenger trains will pass through the tunnel each day in a journey taking as little as 17 minutes. The completed tunnel travels up to 2.3 km below the surface of the mountains above and through rock that reaches temperatures of 46C. Engineers had to dig and blast through 73 different kinds of rock, some as hard as granite and others as soft as sugar. More than 28m tonnes of rock was excavated, which was then broken down to help make the concrete used to build the tunnel. Reaching a depth of 2,300 meters (7,545 feet, almost 1.5 miles) the tunnel will slice an hour off the travel time between Zurich, Switzerland, and Milan, Italy. Trains will travel the tunnel, which runs between the towns of Erstfeld in the north and Bodio in the south, in only 20 minutes, reaching speeds of up to 250 kilometers an hour (155 mph), according to the Swiss Travel System.

The tunnel is being financed by value-added and fuel taxes, road charges on heavy vehicles and state loans that are due to be repaid within a decade. Swiss bank Credit Suisse has said its economic benefits will include the easier movement of goods and increased tourism. Nine workers died in accidents while the tunnel was under construction. Four were Germans, three Italians, and one each came from South Africa and Austria. They are commemorated by a plaque near the northern end of the tunnel, Swiss media report.

The new tunnel fits into the European railway freight corridor, which links Rotterdam and Genoa” — key ports in the Netherlands and Italy, Schneider-Ammann said, according to the Associated Press. “Aside from saving time, more merchandise can be carried through the Alps. These countries will benefit from the new tunnel by allowing the transfer of cargo from road to rail, reducing travel time and hauling costs. Another train carries 500 people who won tickets in a drawing to ride through the tunnel on opening day. It is a reminder that Swiss taxpayers footed the $10 billion tab for this project.

As the train speeds through the tunnel, it is reassuring to know the safety features were tested hundreds of times before this maiden trip. In case of an emergency, two stations along the route allow trains to cross from one tunnel to the other, if needed. And in case of fire, ventilation equipment will suck out smoke and blast in fresh air through side openings.

The trip lasts only 20 minutes — far shorter than driving along the winding roads through the mountains. The quicker transit time between central and southern Switzerland also brings two linguistic regions closer. The tunnel runs between the German-speaking Swiss town of Erstfeld in the north and the Italian-speaking town of Bodio in the south. When the train pulls into the Bodio station, passengers applaud. “It is a historic day for Switzerland and a milestone in railway history,” an emotional Swiss Transport Minister Doris Leuthard said at the opening ceremony.

About 1,500 guests celebrated the opening at both ends of the tunnel. A show depicted the history of Gotthard Mountain and the Alps, an alpine horn orchestra played at the foot of the mountain, and the Swiss Air Force flew in formation over the mountain. A public ceremony, likely to draw more than 100,000 people, will be held Saturday and Sunday.

Switzerland’s Gotthard Railway Tunnel is a major engineering achievement deep under snow-capped peaks. The Gotthard Base Tunnel is a record-setter, now eclipsing Japan’s Seikan Tunnel as the world’s longest. The 57-kilometer long tunnel creates a high-speed rail link deep beneath the famous mountain range, connecting northern and southern Europe. And with characteristic Swiss punctuality, this major engineering feat has been completed on schedule. Now the completed tunnel, delivered on time and within budget, will create a mainline rail connection between Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Genoa in Italy. When full services begin in December, the journey time for travelers between Zurich and Milan will be reduced by an hour to two hours and 40 minutes.

About 325 freight and passenger trains will pass through the Gotthard each day, connecting northern and southern Europe, and alleviating congestion and air pollution in the Alpine valleys. As France’s Hollande said, “Switzerland should be proud of what it has accomplished. It has created great infrastructure for all of Europe.”

Switzerland says it will revolutionize European freight transport. Goods currently carried on the route by a million lorries a year will go by train instead. The tunnel has overtaken Japan’s 53.9km Seikan rail tunnel as the longest in the world and pushed the 50.5km Channel Tunnel linking the UK and France into third place.

AlpTransit Gotthard, the company behind the construction of the tunnel, says the project will boost the efficiency and reliability of rail freight, making it more competitive.

Beyond the anticipated benefits for travel and trade, the project will provide a direct and economic route for freight transport.

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France’s Controversial ‘Separatism’ Bill

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In his very first days at the Elysee Palace, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to detail his views on secularism and Islam in a wide-ranging speech. It took more than three years for this to happen, with the much awaited speech actually taking place in October a week after a teacher was violently killed for revealing the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad(PBUH) during a lecture on freedom of expression. Macron said during his speech that “Islam is a religion which is experiencing a crisis today, all over the world”, adding that there was a need to “free Islam in France from foreign influences”. Mr. Macron and his Parliament allies have described the bill as a reaction to the rise of Islamic separatism, which the President defines as a philosophy that seeks to create a parallel state in France where religious laws replace civil law.  Referring to the cartoons at a citizenship ceremony earlier and before the latest attacks, Macron defended the “right to blasphemy” as a fundamental freedom, even as he condemned “Islamic separatism.”

“To be French is to defend the right to make people laugh, to criticize, to mock, to caricature,” the president said. The proposed law allows religious associations and mosques to report more than €10,000 ($12,000) in international support and to sign a promise to uphold the French republican ideals in order to obtain state subsidies. The bill will also make it possible for the government to close down mosques, organizations and colleges that have been described as criticizing republican values.The controversial bill is blamed for targeting the Muslim people and enforcing limits on nearly every part of their lives. It allows government to oversee the funds of associations and non-governmental organizations belonging to Muslims. It also limits the schooling options of the Muslim community by prohibiting families from providing home education to children. The law also forbids people from selecting physicians on the grounds of gender for religious or other purposes and mandates a compulsory ‘secularism education’ on all elected officials. Physicians will either be charged or jailed under the law if they conduct a virginity test on girls. Critics argue the so-called “separatism law” is racist and threatens the 5.7 million-strong Muslim population in France, the highest in Europe. Its critics include the 100 imams, 50 teachers of Islamic sciences and 50 members of associations in France who signed an open letter against the “unacceptable” charter on 10 February.

A criminal act for online hate speech will make it easier to easily apprehend a person who shares sensitive information about public sector workers on social media with a view to hurting them and will be disciplined by up to three years in jail and a fine of EUR 45.000. The banning or deleting of pages spreading hate speech would now be made smoother and legal action accelerated. The bill expands what is known in France as the ‘neutrality clause,’ which forbids civil servants from displaying religious symbols such as the Muslim veil and holding political opinions, outside public sector workers to all commercial providers in public utilities, such as those working for transport firms.

French Members of Parliament held two weeks of heated debates in the National Assembly. People of Muslim faith interviewed outside the Paris Mosque and around Paris on the outdoor food market before the vote had hardly heard of the rule. “I don’t believe that the Muslims here in France are troublemakers or revolutionaries against France,” said Bahri Ayari, a taxi driver who spoke to AP after prayers inside Paris’ Grand Mosque. “I don’t understand, when one talks about radicalism, what does that mean — radicalism? It’s these people who go to jail, they find themselves with nothing to do, they discuss amongst themselves and they leave prison even more aggressive and then that gets put on the back of Islam. That’s not what a Muslim is,” he added.

Three bodies of the French Council of Muslim Worship (CFCM) have unilaterally denounced the “charter of principles” of Islam, which reaffirms the continuity of religion with France. The three parties said that the Charter was accepted without the full consensus of the other integral components of the CFCM, including the provincial and departmental councils and the imams concerned. “We believe that certain passages and formulations of the submitted text are likely to weaken the bonds of trust between the Muslims of France and the nation. In addition, certain statements undermine the honor of Muslims, with an accusatory and marginalizing character,” the Milli Görüş Islamic Confederation (CMIG) and the Faith and Practice movement said in a joint statement. The bill is blamed for targeting the Muslim community and enforcing limits on nearly any part of their lives. It allows for interference in mosques and organizations responsible for the operation of mosques, as well as for the oversight of the funds of associations and non-governmental organizations belonging to Muslims.

It is a difficult time for the nation, which has also accused its protection bill of containing the press freedom. The law introduced aims at making it unlawful to post photographs of police officers in which it is identifiable by “malicious intent” However, law enforcement has criticized the government after the declaration by Macron of the development of an online forum to flag police brutality.

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Why Is Europe Hostile Towards Russia?

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In his seminal 1871 work Russia and Europe, the famous Russian intellectual and Slavophile Nikolay Danilevsky set forth his theory that “Europe recognizes Russia as something alien to itself, and not only alien, but also hostile,” and that Russia’s fundamental interests should act as a “counterweight to Europe.”

One hundred and fifty years have passed since that work was published. The world has changed. No matter what anti-globalists might say, the rapid development of modern technologies and their use in our everyday lives has forced us to re-evaluate many of our beliefs about relations between states and people. The exchange of information, scientific discoveries and knowledge, and the sharing of our cultural wealth bring countries closer together and open up opportunities for development that did not exist before. Artificial intelligence does not know any boundaries and does not differentiate users by gender or nationality. Along with these new opportunities, the world is also faced with new problems that are increasingly supranational in nature and which require our combined efforts to overcome. The coronavirus pandemic is the latest example of this.

It is against the background of these rapid changes, which for obvious reasons cannot unfold without certain consequences, that we can occasionally hear this very same theory that “Europe is hostile towards Russia.” Although the arguments put forward to support this claim today seem far less nuanced than those of Nikolay Danilevsky.

Even so, ignoring this issue is not an option, as doing so would make it extremely difficult to build a serious long-term foreign policy given the prominent role that Europe plays in global affairs.

Before we dive in, I would like to say a few words about the question at hand. Why should Europe love or loathe Russia? Do we have any reason to believe that Russia has any strong feelings, positive or negative, towards another country? These are the kind of words that are used to describe relations between states in the modern, interdependent world. But they are, for the most part, simply unacceptable. Russia’s foreign policy concepts invariably focus on ensuring the country’s security, sovereignty and territorial integrity and creating favourable external conditions for its progressive development.

Russia and Europe have a long history that dates back centuries. And there have been wars and periods of mutually beneficial cooperation along the way. No matter what anyone says, Russia is an inseparable part of Europe, just as Europe cannot be considered “complete” without Russia.

Thus, it is essential to direct intellectual potential not towards destruction, but rather towards the formation of a new kind of relationship, one that reflects modern realities.

At the dawn of the 21st century, it was clear to everyone that, due to objective reasons, Russia would not be able to become a full-fledged member of the military, political and economic associations that existed in Europe at the time, meaning the European Union and NATO. That is why mechanisms were put in place to help the sides build relations and cooperate in various fields. Bilateral relations developed significantly in just a few years as a result. The European Union became Russia’s main foreign economic partner, and channels for mutually beneficial cooperation in many spheres were built.

However, EU-Russia relations have stalled in recent years. In fact, much of the progress that had been made is now being undone. And positive or negative feelings towards one another have nothing to do with it. This is happening because the parties have lost a strategic vision of the future of bilateral relations in a rapidly changing world.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin said that Russia is part of Europe, and that, culturally, Russia and Europe are one civilization. This is the basic premise—one that is not based on emotions—that should underlie Russia’s policy in its relations with Europe.

Russia and the European Union disagree on many things, but the only way to overcome misunderstandings and find opportunities to move forward is through dialogue. In this context, the recent visit of the EU High Representative to Moscow was a much-needed step in the right direction, despite the criticism that this move received from the European side. Nobody was expecting any “breakthroughs” from the visit, as the animosities and misunderstandings between the two sides cut too deep. Yet visits and contacts of this kind should become the norm, for without them we will never see any real progress in bilateral relations.

In addition to the issues that currently fill the agendas of the two sides, attention should be focused on developing a strategic vision of what EU-Russia relations should be in the future, as well as on areas of mutual interest. For example, it is high time that Europe and Russia broached the subject of the compatibility of their respective energy strategies, as well as the possible consequences of the introduction of “green energy” in Europe in terms of economic cooperation with Russia. Otherwise, it will be too late, and instead of a new area of mutually beneficial cooperation, we will have yet another irresolvable problem.

In his work Russia and Europe, Nikolay Danilevsky, while recognizing the good that Peter the Great had done for his country, reproached him for “wanting to make Russia Europe at all costs.” No one would make such accusations today. Russia is, was and always will be an independent actor on the international stage, with its own national interests and priorities. But the only way they can only be realized in full is if the country pursues an active foreign policy. And one of the priorities of that policy is relations with Europe.

From our partner RIAC

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Entry into force of the Tromso Convention: A unique opportunity

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Accessing quality information has never been so challenging, despite or maybe, because of our exposure to tremendous amount of information. The entry into force of the Council of Europe (CoE) Convention on Access to Official Documents (Tromsø Convention) on 1 December 2020, in a context of concerning deficit of transparency in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, appears as an opportunity for governments to reinforce transparency culture and restore citizens trust and legitimacy in their institutions, in democracy.

Increasing recognition of the right of access to official documents

The Nordic European States pioneered the development of the right of access to official documents, with the world’s first law on access to information adopted by Sweden in 1766. It then spread progressively to many other West European countries, before reaching its peak in the 1990s with the creation of legal tools in the new democracies of Eastern and Central Europe. Today, various legal instruments (constitutions, national laws and jurisprudence) across Europe recognize the right of access to official documents. At the international level as well, this right has been increasingly recognized[1].

The CoE Convention on Access to Official Documents, signed on 18 June 2009 in Tromsø, Norway, is the first binding international legal instrument to recognize a general right of access to official documents held by public authorities. More than ten years later, on 1 December 2020, the Convention entered into force, following the ratification by Ukraine, tenth State to ratify it[2].

The Convention considers that all official documents are in principle public and provides a minimum legal framework for the prompt and fair processing of requests for access to official documents. Only the protection of other rights and legitimate interests can justify the rejection of requests. When requests are denied, it obliges the States to provide “access to a review procedure before a court or another independent and impartial body established by law” (Article 8).

This development could give a fresh impetus to European efforts towards greater transparency and reinforce democracy in general. It is particularly much welcome in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis and the “infodemic” accompanying the pandemic.  However, observers stress that much remains to be done to make this ambitious initiative a reality and to bring together all European countries to ratify it.

Making access to official documents a reality

In her comment on the Convention, CoE Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović stresses the importance of access to official documents for “transparency, good governance and participatory democracy and a key means of facilitating the exercise of other human rights and fundamental freedoms” and calls on CoE member states and non-member states to ratify the Tromsø Convention as soon as possible. On the same note, Access Info Europe group called on 17 November all member states of the CoE to sign and ratify, with a special call on France, German, Italy and Great Britain, in order to ensure that Europe’s largest countries are taking part in this European effort towards greater transparency of public authorities.

Today, virtually all countries of the Council of Europe have freedom of information laws and some “good models” exist[3]. But the level of transparency varies between the countries and even across the institutions of each country. In some legal provision, the lack of clarity jeopardizes the enforcement.

In such context of profusion of legal provision, the Tromsø Convention could help build a stronger, harmonized and more comprehensive legal framework, create a common understanding of access to official documents and guarantee that all European citizens enjoy the same right to information and hold their authorities accountable.

In addition to ratification, promoting and disseminating the legal instruments must be a priority, as states Article 9 of the Convention: “Parties shall inform the public about its right of access to official documents”. Signatory states must promote this legal instrument and avoid that such a crucial initiative goes unnoticed. It would be paradoxical if such an ambitious initiative on transparency is not truly made public.

Transparency often denied when it is most needed

Access to information is even more vital in times of crisis. In the current Covid-19 pandemic, access to reliable information is not only a matter of public health but also of public trust in health management systems and authorities. Fighting misinformation should be part of the crisis management plans, to fight the “infodemic” parallel to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, it is precisely in times of crisis that freedom of information is often denied, on the grounds of national security arguments. The secrecy around the EU vaccines contracts is a blatant illustration of such ambivalent attitude to transparency when it is most needed. On Friday 29 January, five months after the signature and after renewed requests from various European politicians and civil society groups, the European commission finally published the vaccine contract signed on 27 August 2020 with Astrazeneca.

Although the publication of such an important document could have been a great move for the Commission to regain legitimacy, the actual outcome, a redacted document with price and accountability terms kept secret, raises more questions than it answers, contributing to more mistrust. Why is the Commission holding such crucial public health information, denying citizens right to know on issues that directly affect them?


[1] Examples: United Nations Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters;Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 of the European Parliament and the Council regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents.

[2] after Sweden, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Finland, Norway, Moldova, Croatia, Montenegro, Hungary and Lithuania.  Eight additional countries have already signed the Convention: Armenia, Belgium, Georgia, Iceland, North Macedonia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovenia.

[3] In her call on CoE members states to ratify the Convention, DunjaMijatović names for example Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia which have an independent oversight body responsible for monitoring and enforcing the right to information.

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