Compared to the 160 million years the Alps have spent climbing out of the violent collision of the Eurasian and African tectonic plates, Switzerland’s 17-year project to blast through them doesn’t seem lengthy at all. But the feat fits the scale of the snow-capped mountains: When it opens today, the Gotthard Base Tunnel will be the longest, deepest rail tunnel in the world, spanning 35 miles and dipping to 1.4 miles below the surface. It’s a majorly challenging and ambitious infrastructure project for a small country perhaps best known for chocolate. Here’s what you need to know.

It’s about making mountain journeys less of a pain.

The Gotthard runs the 35 miles from the picturesque town of Erstfeld to the picturesque town of Bodio. It’s actually the third tunnel in the area, joining the Gotthard road tunnel, which carries automobiles, and the Gotthard rail tunnel, a much shorter train passage opened in 1882. The new setups cost about $12.3 billion, funded in part by a new road tax passed by Swiss referendum in 1998. In December, high-speed trains will start rocketing between the two, replacing an hour-long drive with a 20-minute jaunt. By linking with existing rail networks, the new tunnel will also halve the more popular, 4.5-hour journey from Zurich to Milan.

AlpTransit Gotthard Ltd.

The Gotthard runs the 35 miles from the picturesque town of Erstfeld to the picturesque town of Bodio. It’s actually the third tunnel in the area, joining the Gotthard road tunnel, which carries automobiles, and the Gotthard rail tunnel, a much shorter train passage opened in 1882. The new setups cost about $12.3 billion, funded in part by a new road tax passed by Swiss referendum in 1998. In December, high-speed trains will start rocketing between the two, replacing an hour-long drive with a 20-minute jaunt. By linking with existing rail networks, the new tunnel will also halve the more popular, 4.5-hour journey from Zurich to Milan.

Building it was a pain.

Over 17 years of construction, tunnel boring machines—named Heidi, Sissi, Gabi, and Gabi II—bore the brunt of the work. Over 2,400 workers toiled round the clock in three shifts to excavate over 30 million tons of granite, gneiss, and sedimentary rock. During the climax of the work, underneath the humongous Gotthard Massif range, temperatures in the tunnel reached a distinctly un-Swiss 122 degrees Fahrenheit. In total, the construction team built 94 miles of tunnel, including two side-by-side shafts and a network of access shafts, emergency passages, and air ducts to support them.

AlpTransit Gotthard Ltd.

Over 17 years of construction, tunnel boring machines—named Heidi, Sissi, Gabi, and Gabi II—bore the brunt of the work. Over 2,400 workers toiled round the clock in three shifts to excavate over 30 million tons of granite, gneiss, and sedimentary rock. During the climax of the work, underneath the humongous Gotthard Massif range, temperatures in the tunnel reached a distinctly un-Swiss 122 degrees Fahrenheit. In total, the construction team built 94 miles of tunnel, including two side-by-side shafts and a network of access shafts, emergency passages, and air ducts to support them.

The tunnel will protect the Alps.

These days, the hills are mostly alive with the sound of traffic. The vehicle-friendly Gotthard road tunnel alone plays host to five million cars and 900,000 heavy trucks a year. Congestion is bad enough, but idling vehicles—and especially trucks—mean the cool mountain air gets its fair dose of pollution: France’s Alpine towns are some of its most polluted, according to the World Health Organization report.) So the new rail tunnel’s builders are hoping it can attract people and goods away from the Alps’s roads and open air. Maria Von Trapp would approve.

Emilie CHAIX/Getty Images

These days, the hills are mostly alive with the sound of traffic. The vehicle-friendly Gotthard road tunnel alone plays host to five million cars and 900,000 heavy trucks a year. Congestion is bad enough, but idling vehicles—and especially trucks—mean the cool mountain air gets its fair dose of pollution: France’s Alpine towns are some of its most polluted, according to the World Health Organization report.) So the new rail tunnel’s builders are hoping it can attract people and goods away from the Alps’s roads and open air. Maria Von Trapp would approve.

The scenery stinks.

Those expecting a green and leisurely ride through one of the most beautiful parts of the world will be sorely disappointed. The unfortunate part of traveling below the Alps is that you don’t get to see them—or much of anything at all. Hope you like 20-minute naps!

AlpTransit Gotthard Ltd.

Those expecting a green and leisurely ride through one of the most beautiful parts of the world will be sorely disappointed. The unfortunate part of traveling below the Alps is that you don’t get to see them—or much of anything at all. Hope you like 20-minute naps!

It’s really about freight.

The Gotthard Base Tunnel, which can accommodate 260 freight trains a day, is only the first part of a plan to rehaul the way Europe, well, hauls. With the help of the another mammoth tunnel to its south, set to open in 2020, Gotthard is a critical part of the revitalization of the Rotterdam to Genoa rail network. The continuous flat route will connect the bustling northern Dutch port to the Mediterranean, meaning freight can blast through Europe at unprecedented speeds. Meanwhile, Austria, the Italian and German Alps, and the French city of Lyons all have green lights for their own major underground projects. By 2030, getting around Europe will be much faster, especially if you’re a large shipping container of, say, stroopwafels.

AlpTransit Gotthard Ltd.

The Gotthard Base Tunnel, which can accommodate 260 freight trains a day, is only the first part of a plan to rehaul the way Europe, well, hauls. With the help of the another mammoth tunnel to its south, set to open in 2020, Gotthard is a critical part of the revitalization of the Rotterdam to Genoa rail network. The continuous flat route will connect the bustling northern Dutch port to the Mediterranean, meaning freight can blast through Europe at unprecedented speeds. Meanwhile, Austria, the Italian and German Alps, and the French city of Lyons all have green lights for their own major underground projects. By 2030, getting around Europe will be much faster, especially if you’re a large shipping container of, say, stroopwafels.

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The Best Way Through the Alps Is the World’s Longest Rail Tunnel