Switzerland’s Gotthard road tunnel isn’t for the fainthearted – a single narrow lane in each direction, ordinary cars dwarfed by lorries roaring through - this is europe’s freight on the move – Italian wine to the Netherlands, or german cars to spain, they all have to cross the alps – both the road tunnel and the 125 year old railtunnel are overburdened: the narrow alpine valleys are suffering from traffic and pollution.
But, deep beneath the alps, work is going on to improve things: it’s called alptransit: a high speed rail link from Zurich to Milan – part of it, at 57 kilometres, will be the world’s longest rail tunnel – to visit it, you have to join the tunnel builders in a rickety opensided train which plunges through the darkness.
"We work at the longest and the deepest tunnel ever built on earth, we have 2 and 1/2 kilometres of mountain above us, that’s millions of tonnes."
Deputy chief engineer Arthur Schmid is understandably proud of his work – but he admits it doesn’t always go to plan.
"We’ve been meeting rock deformations, soft rock, like dirt, in good rock conditions we can dig 40 metres a day, that’s an absolute record, but in poor conditions we reach only half a metre or a metre, so it’s obvious the tunnel in these conditions costs more money and takes longer to build."
This tunnel makes the alps disappear, when one drives from the north from Zurich to Milan, now it’s a beautiful panoramic journey through the alps, and with alptransit all the mountains disappear, it’s just a big black hole, and nothing else.
Arthur Loretz and others living along the tunnel’s route have come up with a plan – keep the elevators built for the construction site, and use them to create a railway station to bring tourists to the region – they call it porta alpina – gateway to the alps.
"Porta alpina will be a station 1000 metres under the ground in the middle of the alps, and then of course we have an elevator, the highest elevator on earth, so we have the deepest station with the highest elevator with the longest tunnel on earth."
All these superlatives cost money. The final price tag for the raillink is likely to be at least 15 billion dollars.
"This tunnel is not too expensive, if you think we are building not for 10 or 20 years but for a century or more, and when we were building the motorways through Switzerland nobody was asking whether it was too expensive or not."
Outside, the lorries still rumble by - It will be 10 years before the tunnel is finished, but when it is, Arthur Loretz says it will have not just environmental benefits, but with Porta Alpina, social ones too.
"Here we are in a narrow valley, and over that mountain there is the ticino, where they speak Italian, over this one here they speak German, and right here we speak reto romantsch, a language only spoken by around 50,000 people. The mountains divided us until now, but porta alpina, I hope, will bring us together."
So, when it finally comes into use, the new highspeed raillink should not only change the face of freight transport across Europe, but protect the beauty of these alpine valleys, and perhaps even unite communities which the have for so long been divided by the mountains.Listen to the report:
The Netherlands hit the international headlines on April Fools day five years ago - not because of a spectacular practical joke, but because on April 1 2002 it became the first country in the world to legalise euthanasia. The new law legalised the practice of "mercy killings" within strict boundaries - and there was considerable international criticism of the legislation. Radio Netherlands' Louise Dunne examines how the euthanisia law is working five years on. 5 years since the Dutch legalised euthanasia, what has changed for doctors and patients?
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Now, Europe's Arab heritage is not something we hear a lot about these days. Since 9/11 and the international war on terrorism - many observers would have us believe that Europe and the Arab world occupy opposing ends of the ends of a cultural, social, and religious spectrum. But as Ingemar Karlsson, a Swedish diplomat in Turkey, advocates in his recently published book Europe should reconsider its Arab Heritage.
And on to another interesting cross-cultural phenomenon: Esperanto - a language that was invented 120 years ago by a Polish Jew. Cynics mocked it as an idealistic cult for linguistic weirdos. But today there still some diehards lobbying for Esperanto to be the EU's official language. They argue Esperanto is perfect for the modern internet age without global barriers. Radio Prague's Pavla Horakova has been finding out more about the small but vibrant community of Esperanto speakers in the Czech Republic.
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