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Tunnel Vision – Switzerland vs the United Kingdom

If tunnel building were an Olympic support, I suspect that Switzerland would bestride the top step of the podium and its virtually unknown national anthem would blare out to the cheering crowd, thrilled by the culmination of a 20-year slog of building the Gotthard base tunnel, the world’s longest rail tunnel, which opens today, co-incidentally the anniversary of a British naval triumph against the French, the Glorious First of June (with those rebellious colonists being involved tangentially).

This twin-bore tunnel opened on time and within budget, and it runs level and almost straight through the varying geology of 35 miles of Swiss mountain, a fantastic achievement, but with sadly 9 deaths, but that seems very low over 20 years and 35 miles. If it can be traversed, per reports, in 17 minutes, that’s an average speed of over 120mph. The idea is to get lorries crossing the Alps through Switzerland off the Swiss roads. Switzerland is, of course, (along with Liechtenstein) surrounded by the European Union but outside it.

And meanwhile, as the Swiss literally give geology both barrels, in England, we have our glorious Channel Tunnel and the Channel Ports (as the Sage of Kettering relayed to me once ‘The problem with the Channel Tunnel is that it has a government at both ends.‘). Well, today a House of Commons committee has come up with a rather skeptical report about a new plan to cope with cross-Channel traffic. For those who do not drive in the South-East of England, there is a standing plan in place to cope with the vagaries of the joys of free movement of goods in the glorious European Union whenever the Channel Tunnel runs into a problem (e.g. when the French start horsing around, burning sheep etc.), called ‘Operation Stack’, where the Kent police close an entire motorway, the M20, and park lorries bound for the Continent on it pending the cessation of hostilities, typically a period of 5 days of so, when a major motorway becomes a lorry park, and to Hell with the locals.

part of the M20 was used 32 times last summer by queuing lorries – a process known as Operation Stack.

The British answer to this problem is, of course, to shell Calais and demand its return to English control (er, no), it is to build a 65 hectare lorry park at a cost of £250,000,000. This would be as big as Disneyland (the one in California) and bigger than the Vatican (a mere 44 hectares) and with the added bonus of no Pope. It will allow 4,000 lorries to be parked whilst the benighted lorry drivers await the restoration of normality. One might ask why each lorry space would cost £62,500 (c.$90,000 US)?

Do we see here cultural differences between the UK and Switzerland? The acceptance of failure and its normalisation, a tendency towards inflated cost and an attitude of weary resignation, against a positive can-do attitude that bulldozes through problems.

So why can’t we be like Switzerland?

Postscript: Eric’s comment indicates that the Swiss may not have been above a bit of creative accounting in completing the tunnel on time and in budget, for which I am grateful, I may have been misled by the BBC (which in Cyrillic was the acronym for the Soviet Army Airborne Forces, what a co-incidence).

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15 comments to Tunnel Vision – Switzerland vs the United Kingdom

  • Paul Marks

    Switzerland has its problems.

    The local branch of the establishment elite (the products of the education system) have done great harm in Switzerland.

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    Too much coast, too few mountains.

    Cheers

  • Julie near Chicago

    Mr Ed, that’s a lovely performance. Do you know what chorus is singing?

  • Mr Ed

    Julie,

    Nein, Non, No, Na.

  • William O. B'Livion

    This twin-bore tunnel opened on time and within budget,

    What?

    AMAZING. How did they do *that*?

    but with sadly 9 deaths, but that seems very low over 20 years and 35 miles.

    I’d bet that actuarially that’s about “normal” for any representative population group.

  • Eric

    This twin-bore tunnel opened on time and within budget…

    For an odd definition of “on time and within budget”. This particular tunnel was part of a larger project, and the only way they were able to complete it “on time and within budget” is by scaling back the rest of the project. According to wikipedia:

    Due to the soaring costs of the AlpTransit initiative, funds were diverted to the Gotthard Base Tunnel; and the LBT [Loetschberg Base Tunnel] is only half finished.

    And it looks like they’ve scrapped the Zimmerberg Base Tunnel entirely.

  • Laird

    judging from the video in that article, the opening ceremonies were bizarre enough that they made the London Olympics ones seem pedestrian by comparison.

  • I think out of sheer necessity the Swiss and the French are simply better at civil engineering. I have an apartment in Annecy near the Swiss border and every few months I do the 5-6 hour drive there from Paris. Leaving aside the fact that the ordinary French autoroutes are splendid (albeit not cheap to access), once you turn off the A6 and follow the A40 towards the mountains you start seeing tunnels several km long and elevated sections of motorway hugging the sides of a valley which are really impressive first time you see them. These feats of civil engineering are everywhere in this region of France, and in Switzerland too. Whereas in the UK the repair of the bloody Thelwall Viaduct is considered a big project.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Switzerland had great government stuff like tunnels, railways and roads because Switzerland is a rich country and can afford an expensive government. It is a rich country because, by and large, it hasn’t had that much government.

    Unfortunately, in recent years it seems to have become ever more part of the international blancmange. Banking secrecy has gone and soldiers no longer carry their weapons in public are the only examples I can think of off the top of my head but I believe there are others.

    Oh yes, and joining the UN.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    These feats of civil engineering are everywhere in this region of France, and in Switzerland too.

    They are in northern Italy, too, again pretty much out of necessity given the geography. Some of them are quite old The circumstances of how they came to be built and how they were paid for – I really don’t know.

    It’s also true in Norway, due to the physical geography. A lot of them are newer there, and presumably have been paid for with oil wealth.

    I must say I am rather awed by this new tunnel. Traditionally, in Switzerland (and everywhere else that has had the money and expertise to build tunnels) you drive half way up the mountain and then go through a tunnel to avoid having to go over the very top of a pass. Instead we now just more or less stay flat and go entirely under the mountain. The longest tunnels up until now have been underwater tunnels replacing ferries. This is something else, and I suspect we will see a lot more of this kind of thing as tunnelling technology continues to improve.

  • Mr Ed

    Come to think of it, parts of the Netherlands are an open-air tunnel.

  • Surellin

    1 June is also the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland.

  • QET

    Yes, well, Eric and others may sniff at creativity in meeting timetables and budgets, but all of the creativity in the world could not prevent the USA’s recent showcase civil engineering tunneling project–the Big Dig (not even involving a mountain)–from missing its deadline by 10 years (1998 versus 2007) and its budget by a mere 686% ($2.8B versus $22B). And while could find only one report of a construction worker death, I found that at least nine civilians have been killed so far as a result of negligent construction.

  • CaptDMO

    The big dig. Waaaay over time, and Waaaaay over budget. Oh, by the way , it leaks.
    California High Speed Rail, serving…um…who, exactly?
    “Why is it that these hotbeds of “progressive, socialist” management….”
    NYC Wollman Skating Rink. After years of “problematic” delays, and inexplicable budget over runs….
    “Under New Management”, Ahead of time, and under budget.

    Just sayin’

  • Rich Rostrom

    “BBC” has yet another, indecorous meaning, as suggested in this scene from Blazing Saddles.