SEDRUN, Switzerland — Swiss officials declared a day of joy Friday as residents of the Alpine nation eagerly awaited the breakthrough moment for the world's longest tunnel — a project 60 years in the making.
Engineers were to start up a massive drilling machine at 2 p.m. so it can chew through the last remaining rock separating the two ends of the 35.4-mile (57-kilometer) Gotthard Base Tunnel in central Switzerland.
The tunnel is seen as an important milestone in the creation of a high-speed transportation network connecting all corners of Europe. It will allow millions of tons of goods that are currently transported through the Alps on heavy trucks to be shifted onto the rails, particularly the economically important link between the Dutch port of Rotterdam and Italy's Mediterranean port of Genoa.
Peter Fueglistaler, director of Switzerland's Federal Office of Transport, expressed confidence that the carefully orchestrated breakthrough ceremony deep underground would pass without a hitch.
"It's a day of joy for Switzerland," he told The Associated Press. "We are not a very emotional people but if we have the longest tunnel in the world, this also for us is very, very emotional."
Some 2,500 workers have spent nearly 20 years smashing through the rock beneath the towering Gotthard massif, including the 8,200-foot (2,500-meter) Piz Vatgira.
When the $10 billion tunnel is opened for rail traffic in 2017, it will replace Japan's 33.5-mile (53.6-kilometer) Seikan Tunnel as the world's longest — excluding aqueducts — and let passenger and cargo trains pass underneath the Alps at speeds of up to 155 miles an hour (250 kilometers an hour) on their way from Germany to Italy.
The tunnel is part of a larger project to shift the haulage of goods from roads to rails, spurred mainly by a concern that heavy trucks are destroying Switzerland's pristine Alpine landscape.
Swiss voters, who are paying over $1,300 each to fund the project, approved its construction in a series of referendums almost 20 years ago.
European transport minister will be watching the breakthrough ceremony live from a meeting in Luxembourg, conscious that Switzerland has set the bar very high for future cross-Alpine rail projects. Two further tunnels — one connecting connect Lyon, France, to Turin in Italy, and the other replacing the Brenner road tunnel between Austria and Italy — are still a long way from completion.
Swiss engineers are hoping to complete the rail tunnel even sooner than planned — possibly by the end of 2016 — but the arrival of the first high-speed trains could be delayed by problems in Germany and Italy, where local opposition to new tracks and budget constraints have become an issue in recent months.
"Our neighbors in Germany and Italy will have to fulfill their promise and provide high-speed rail links," Fueglistaler said.
Asked whether he thought large, ongoing protests in the German city of Stuttgart could derail the high-speed dream, he said: "Overall I'm confident that these connections will be built in time."
The protesters in Stuttgart oppose plans to move the city's station underground, viewing the €4.1 billion ($5.7 billion) project as a waste of money. Supporters say it will free up the city's packed center and help shorten journeys across Europe.
Heinz Ehrbar, a bear of a man in bright orange overalls, told the AP that the breakthrough celebration for the Gotthard Tunnel was also a moment to reflect on the lives lost during its construction.
"I'm really proud but I'm thinking also of the eight people who have lost their lives," said Ehrbar, the tunnel's chief construction officer. "It's very important that we remember that not all of our workers can be with us today."
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