The construction of the Gotthard railway – the southern access route to the Gotthard tunnel

Those who are allowed to make drawings for the Gotthard line here in the open air in 1875 should themselves lucky! The tunnel workers toiled in the often far too stuffy pits in the north and south. The construction company Favre allows this and numerous other misunderstandings. After all, it’s the metres advanced that count! To this end, technical improvements are continuously channelled into the drilling and blasting procedure. Protecting the workers and promoting better living and working conditions is a (cost) factor that is not considered until the 19th century in view of major impairments. The client, Gotthardbahngesellschaft, awarded the contract for the construction of the tunnel to Louis Favre, who underbid the competition by a considerable margin. The firm considered various construction companies for the whole line. Tunnel construction is just one of the formidable services that are expected from private and public investors.

Above the Gotthard Tunnel near Airolo, view down into the valley over the terrain of the Gotthard Railway mountain section, ETH Library, University Archives, 3999 (Hs).13:1

The measurement pros, for their part, are bent over their drawing boards or spread out their tools by the side of the road or on site to drive forward the Alpine railway project. Gotthardbahngesellschaft runs a technical head office in Zurich and employs engineers, draughtsmen, surveyors and technical assistants to realise the entire railway line. When new senior engineer, Wilhelm Hellwag, takes over, he conducts a thorough review of the existing general project with a reinforced planning staff in April 1875. He is to submit a report in 1876. Seven years before the inauguration of the Gotthard mountain section, whether the structure, which will later be hailed as a record-breaking masterpiece, will actually come about remains to be seen. And it will be another 140 years before the work that is able to outdo the pioneering feat is completed in 2016. Once again, the new Gotthard Base Tunnel is lauded as major feat of engineering.

The Tremola slope is climbed to sketch the terrain with a keen eye and sharpened pencil, professionally and without any fuss, at the end of 1875. The surveying technician signs as G. Zampis. He notes the date and time neatly: 17.12.1875, 9 a.m. 12 p.m. A number of these sketches are produced in December 1875 – and for good reason. Various sections of the first generally available railway line from Airolo needed to be roofed. What is to be done with the definitive line? Where does the railway to Airolo best fit into the terrain, make do without any bank protection structures and does not clash with the existing cantonal road? Really build a “very high crossing” near Faido? And how to avoid having to put in a tunnel beneath the water table of the Ticino River? “Funds and ways need to be found,” as the report by senior engineer Wilhelm Hellwag in November 1875 reads, to replace the costly, even impossible, line plans with better alternatives. The new, far more accurate determinations in the terrain make the planning team and its head see that a suitable solution is achievable in the section near the Dazio Gorge “via a tunnel”. “As, however, one single loop or spiral tunnel with a radius of 300 metres would not have provided the required development length, two successive ones have been proposed.” The result is the detailed concept of the line as it still exists today, leading higher in the Dazio Gorge that the discarded version, before achieving the necessary drop thanks to the Freggio loop tunnel and finally the Prato loop tunnel. Another change is the return to the version of a line as previously proposed, namely to run the railway line south of Airolo on the right-hand bank of the Ticino.

At the end of 1875, the railway line is marked out on the terrain for 11 kilometres of the Airolo-Faido-Lavorgo section, in addition to the triangulation already completed and the detailed view of the entire 24 kilometres of this V section already achieved.

At the same time, other “major terrain difficulties” are reported for the adjacent section down into the valley as far as Biasca. It is the people from the VI Section, Lavorgo-Biasca, who are devoted to processing a line which will soon merely be “the older one”. Still in November, the route is specified with the (old) length of 22 kilometres. Only 31 days later, at the end of December 1875, a breakthrough is evidently made. No more projects are documented for the aforementioned older line; instead, a new version of over 30 kilometres is reported. The full 30 kilometres are regarded as reconnoitred and the operation line is marked out for 17 kilometres. According to the report by the Gotthard railway senior engineer from November 1875, this takes the “utmost effort before the onset of winter”. The lowering already achieved in section V and the increase in the incline of from 25 to 26 per mil enable “two loop or spiral tunnels to be proposed”, as in the Dazio Valley area, in order to achieve the “lowering of the railway” as necessary and “minimise the major difficulties and costs of the southern access line to the Gotthard Tunnel as much as possible”.

Today, the two loop tunnels are known as the Pianotondo and Travi tunnels. They are marked and already labelled on the map below, on which A. Gallinger, Giornico, dated 20.12.1875, recorded the new course of the rail route.

View from La Lume to Travi with the two southernmost Gotthard Railway loop tunnels designed in 1875, realised from 1878 to 1882, ETH Library, University Archives, 3999 (Hs). 14:1

These and other drawings are part of the documents of the Gotthard Railway technical headquarters, which was situated in Zurich. Already quite early on, these were dubbed the “Gotthard Railway Files” and were consigned to ETH Library, currently accessible in the ETH Zurich University Archives. Their contents supplement the Principle Files, which are housed at the SBB Heritage Foundation in the Archiven der SBB und ihrer Vorgängerbahnen. The documents curated at ETH Zurich were most recently enriched in 1889 with official files in the settlement “Baugesellschaft Flüelen-Göschenen contra Gotthardbahn-Gesellschaft”. They were managed by  Eduard Gerlich, representative senior engineer of the Gotthard Railway since 1875. Gerlich had been appointed by Wilhelm Hellwag as a stand-in and also remained deputy senior engineer under his successor, Gustave Bridel. In 1882 Gerlich was appointed as a professor of engineering at the Polytechnical School and primarily taught railway and road construction.

The Gotthard Railway technical headquarters were initially headed by senior engineer Robert Gerwig from 1 May 1872 until he resigned in February 1875 and Wilhelm Hellwag took the reins from April 1875. Although the site engineer, who had already been field-tested in the construction of the Brenner Railway and most recently had been the Director of the Austrian Northwestern Railway put forward successful new concepts, he forecast the colossal deficit of 102 million francs with his construction project and approximate cost estimate, thereby plunging the Gotthard Railway into a financial crisis in the spring of 1876, which the politician and economic pioneer Alfred Escher had to face.

The most important Swiss traffic project of the 19th century employed a vast number of building clerks, overseers, technical assistants, draughtsmen, surveyors and especially engineers in the technical service, who contributed towards the planning progress. Under Senior Engineer Hellwag, who held the post until the end of 1878, the technical service was expanded to around 300 members of staff. In contrast to the tunnel workers, little research has been conducted into the living and working conditions of the employees in the Gotthardbahngesellschaft’s technical professions. The outstanding geologists and surveyors such as Friedrich Moritz Stapff, Otto Gelpke and Carl Koppe are regularly honoured, if not also nicknamed the “railway men”. They are quite rightly presented as established experts in geological matters or engineering, without whose input the Gotthard project would not have succeeded. However, little is presently known about those who performed the reconnaissance, marking, drawing and calculation work. This opens up a largely ignored research field about the people behind the numbers.

The Gotthard Railway mountain section is an outstanding feat of engineering with universal value and a national symbol. Its protection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site without delay after the inauguration of the Gotthard Base Tunnels requires foresight, inspiration and stamina from the decision makers – just as the pioneers of the structure displayed back then.


Elsasser, Kilian T.; Grass, Alexander: Drei Weltrekorde am Gotthard. Politiker, Unternehmer, Ingenieure, Tunnelbauer. Baden 2016

Hellwag, Wilhelm: Bericht über die Ausmittlung der Bahnachse und des Längenprofils der Gotthardbahn und die Bearbeitung eines approximativen Kostenvoranschlags. Zurich, January 1876

Kohle, Strom und Schienen. Die Eisenbahn erobert die Schweiz: Katalog zur Ausstellung „Schienenverkehr“ im Verkehrshaus Luzern.  Zurich 1997

Mathys, Ernst: Männer der Schiene. Kurzbiographien bedeutender Eisenbahnpioniere. Bern 1955

Moeschlin, Felix: Wir durchbohren den Gotthard. 2nd revised edition. Zurich 1957

Wanner, Martin: Geschichte des Baues der Gotthardbahn. Lucerne 1885

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