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Swiss trains now rolling through world's longest rail tunnel

Switzerland's national rail company has begun regular service through the Gotthard Base Tunnel, which at 35.4-miles is the world's longest railway tunnel.

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A passenger train enters the south portal of the Gotthard rail tunnel between Erstfeld and Pollegio, in Pollegio, Switzerland, Sunday. The construction of the 35-mile tunnel began in 1999, the breakthrough was in 2010. After the official opening on June 1, the commercial operation started on Sunday.

Samuel Golay/Keystone/Ti-Press/AP

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After nearly two decades, $12 billion, and 28 million tons of rock cleared out, the world’s longest tunnel opened for daily service on Sunday.

The first passenger train to use the 35-mile Gotthard base tunnel – built 1.4 flat miles below the Swiss Alps – left Zurich Sunday at 6:09 a.m. local time and arrived in Lugano at 8:17 a.m. For now, the tunnel saves a half hour of travel time between Zurich in the north and Lugano in the south of Switzerland.

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But under a massive three-tunnel construction project called New Rail Link through the Alps, Ceneri Base Tunnel is scheduled to begin operation in 2020. When completed, it will connect with the Gotthard tunnel, shaving an hour off travel time between Zurich and Milan, Italy.

A third Lötschberg Base Tunnel, which stretches 21.48 miles north to south under the Alps between Frutigen, Berne, and Raron, Valais in Switzerland began commercial service in 2007.

The new tunnel system, approved by the Swiss public in 1992, replaces old railway lines that have connected northern and southern Europe since 1882. The rail lines transport 26 million tons of freight annually and growing. Unlike the old lines, the new Gotthard tunnel has no gradient and can handle bigger trains, according to The Local. Gotthard will double the freight capacity of the old lines to nearly 210 freight trains a day from 160. It will transport 65 passenger trains daily.

A primary function of the new tunnel system is to ease the burden on the country’s roads by moving freight over the Alps from truck to rail. This will also help reduce harmful emissions and help protect the ecosystem, as The Guardian has pointed out. A majority, 65 percent, of the project’s construction costs were covered by a tax on heavy-duty vehicles, several thousand of which used the old tunnel on an average day.

The new Gotthard tunnel beats the longest tunnel record by nearly two miles. It was previously held by Japan's Seikan Tunnel. Gotthard also exceeds the "Chunnel," a tunnel, once the world's longest, connecting England and France, by four miles.

But all may soon be surpassed by China, which plans to build a 76-mile tunnel below the Bohai straits to reduce travel time between the port cities of Dalian and Yantai from 8 hours to 45 minutes, The Guardian reports.