Today in Transportation History – Breakthrough in a Swiss-Italian Rail Tunnel: February 24, 1905

A pivotal moment took place in the development of the Simplon Tunnel, a railway tunnel running through the Alps in the vicinity of Simplon Pass and linking the city of Brig (now part of Brig-Glis) in southwestern Switzerland with northern Italy’s Piedmont region. More than six years after the construction project began, both halves of the tunnel finally came together when workers boring through the planned structure from different directions finally met up with each other.

“Piercing of the Simplon tunnel was completed at 7:20 this morning,” reported that evening’s edition of the Boston Daily Globe. “The meeting of the two boring parties (Swiss and Italian) was signaled throughout Switzerland by ringing of church bells and salutes by cannon.” As the Boston Daily Globe also noted, “Many unexpected obstacles were encountered, the most serious being hot springs, which threatened to wreck the whole enterprise, and a temperature which at one time rose to 131 degrees [Fahrenheit], making a continuance of the work impossible until the engineers found means of cooling the atmosphere.” The article concluded by proclaiming, “The piercing of the Simplon [tunnel] is regarded as being one of the greatest engineering achievements of the age.”

When the Swiss and Italian parties did meet up with each other on that Friday morning, it turned out that the two halves of the tunnel were out of alignment by only eight inches horizontally and about three-and-a-half inches vertically. Operations through the tunnel began in May 1906 with an opening ceremony in Brig. Those taking part in the ceremony included King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and Swiss Federal Council President Ludwig Forrer.

Measuring over 12 miles in length, the Simplon Tunnel was the world’s longest transit tunnel at the time of its debut. Construction on a second tube for the Simplon Tunnel started in 1912. This tube was opened in 1921.

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