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Miners of longest overland tunnel blast through

21-mile Swiss effort reaches a milestone

GENEVA -- With a final blast through mountain granite, Swiss engineers linked Europe's north and south by completing drilling yesterday for the world's longest overland tunnel, a cavernous shaft that burrows under the Swiss Alps and will shave about an hour off the travel time for skiers in Germany heading to resorts near the Matterhorn.

The 21-mile Loetschberg Tunnel is the latest in a string of engineering feats, from the Channel Tunnel linking France to England to a bridge spanning Sweden and Denmark, that are breaking down natural barriers in an increasingly borderless Europe.

The Loetschberg, set to open to trains in 2007, will be longer than the current overland record-holder, Japan's 16.4-mile Hakkoda Tunnel and will be third overall behind the underwater 33.5-mile Seikan Tunnel, also in Japan, and the 31.3-mile Channel Tunnel.

It will trim to under two hours the time trains will need to go from Germany to Italy, which now takes about 3Æ hours.

The Loetschberg has been dug parallel to a more ambitious project, the 36-mile Gotthard Tunnel, which will be the world's longest when it is completed over the next decade or so.

For Swiss taxpayers, who are footing the bill for the twin, multibillion-dollar projects, the main selling point is that they will move heavy European Union trucks off narrow highways and onto trains.

The Loetschberg tunnel will have the additional benefit of getting skiers to Swiss resorts more quickly. The trip from Bern, at the northern end of the tunnel, to Visp, near ski regions like Switzerland's Zermatt and Italy's Courmayeur, on the southern side of the tunnel, will be cut in half -- to 55 minutes from 110.

Trips across Switzerland will be shorter, because trains will not have to make slow, switch-back climbs to reach older tunnels. And the new track with rails cushioned on rubber will be suitable for high-speed trains from Germany, France, and Italy.

Yesterday, after an engineer sounded three warning blasts on a horn, dynamite blew through the 12 feet of granite still blocking the way between the tunnel drilled from the north and the other half bored from the south.

''With the breakthrough, we have carved out the mountain for all to see. We are moving on," said Moritz Leuenberger, Switzerland's transport minister.

Switzerland is at the center of Europe's north-south axis, where traffic has increased more than tenfold since 1980. The Swiss have tired of traffic jams caused by big rigs and vacationers filling their narrow valleys.

Starting in 2007, trucks will have to be loaded on to rail carts in southern Germany and northern Italy, removing them from some of Switzerland's roads.

The final excavation for the tunnel occurred at the midpoint of the tunnel, about 5,900 feet beneath the 12,170-foot Balmhorn mountain. The breakthrough came 11 years after drilling began.

The two halves of the tunnel met almost perfectly: The center of the bore from the north was 5 inches off the center of the bore from the south, and their heights were fractions of an inch off.

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