Opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland: At the frontier of technology

The epoch-making Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland officially opens on 1 June 2016. With its two 57 km single-track tubes and a rock overburden of up to 2300 metres, it is not only the world's longest but also the world's deepest railway tunnel ever built. Swiss Re contributed to the realization of this unparalleled railway venture as a leading reinsurer.

When commercial services start operating in December 2016, trains will rush through the tunnels at speeds of up to 250 km/h, thus dramatically cutting travelling time from Zurich or Basel to Milano. For the insurers involved in the project, the risks both during and after construction were difficult to assess, insure and manage. Swiss Re Global Engineering supported direct insurance leaders Helvetia and Allianz as a reliable long-term partner with solid underwriting and technical expertise.

Originally, the project was scheduled for completion by 2012. However, as is often the case with tunnelling and metro projects, the specific geological conditions were not known in full detail during the planning phase, and various challenges were only discovered during the construction stage. For the Gotthard Base Tunnel, this meant that the total costs increased from the initial estimate of approx. CHF 6 billion to the final amount of CHF 11 billion.

"A major concern both for the tunnelling contractors and for us was the Piora fault zone with its special vertical and rather soft geological qualities. Fortunately, these difficulties turned out to be less serious than anticipated – partly, perhaps, because we were aware of them, and partly because the pressure of several hundred bars in that depth had over many centuries transformed the soft ground into a less fragile marble," summarises Thomas Raetzo of Swiss Re's Global Engineering team. "On the other hand, we did encounter surprises in the course of tunnelling works in the region of Faido. Here, the gneiss was more brittle and fragile, causing the tunnel ceiling to collapse a dozen times. This caused losses in the low double-digit million dollar range."

Fire and explosion risks are particularly serious exposures in any tunnel construction as the heat cannot escape into an open space but is captured within the confines of the tunnel. This can cause tremendous heat to develop, even igniting aluminium and similar metals. Fire prevention measures were therefore of the utmost importance throughout the project. Systematic fire drills and steady awareness building among all workers were standard features on the agenda.

Swiss Re's long-term commitment and financial capacity backed with its profound technical expertise led to our involvement in this very large infrastructure project. As a leading reinsurer, we are in an excellent position to support large infrastructure projects with durations of 10 years or more. For such long periods, deep trust in the long-term viability and stability of a reinsurer like Swiss Re is key.

Engineering projects often push the boundaries of the tried and tested, involving risks along the way that can be hard for insurers to assess, and harder still to underwrite. To close the gap on both fronts, Swiss Re Global Engineering ensures that it remains at the leading edge of technological progress.


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