Switzerland is busy on an extraordinary amount of tunnelling. A land of high mountains and isolated valleys can be expected to make tunnels, but the Swiss can lay claim to some of the greatest projects achieved. Road links, village and town infrastructure, water and power supplies all need tunnels, both large and small, and the Swiss army famously has hollowed out several large mountains.

But the works now in progress or starting up will dwarf all the past efforts. So much is under way that the traditional self-sufficiency of the Swiss construction industry has been stretched to the limit, and firms from across Europe are setting up in joint ventures to help cope with the workloads.

With Switzerland moving closer to integration with the European Union, cross-European participation also has a political element. Much of the work has the same purpose of integration, physically linking the country to Europe’s road and rail transport network.

Roads through the Jura Mountains, highways and sewers under city streets, hydro plants and water lines are all under construction or planned for Switzerland in the next period. Many smaller bread-and-butter projects will continue to take place. But most of all, it is railway links that have been the focus for the past five years, and will be for the next decade at least.

The Swiss Railways (SBB) has been pursuing a programme of line upgrades – the Bahn 2000 project – for some time, with big tunnelling projects included. Lines south from Zurich, for example, are going underground through the city and suburbs.

Beyond that, however, is the SFr14bn ($5.94bn) AlpTransit project, two high-speed rail links from north to south, the Lötschberg and the Gotthard, involving six big tunnels. Both are enormous schemes, pushing the limits of deep hard rock tunnelling and, on the Gotthard axis at least, rivalling the Channel Tunnel for scale. The main tunnel will be a few kilometres longer.

But mountains are not the only driver for tunnels. The Swiss, like many others, have to cope with increasing city congestion. The Zurich project does that and so, too, does a cut-and-cover motorway through Basel – all part of another side of tunnelling, taking infrastructure out of site just below the surface.

And finally there is CERN , the European particle physics project which is extending a tunnel scheme in a world, or maybe a universe, of its own. Some huge caverns are under way (report in T&T I next month).

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Lötschberg tunnel