Gotthard Base Tunnel

1. Introduction

The Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT) was inaugurated in 2016. The 57-km long railway tunnel connects northern to southern Europe, enabling passenger and goods transport to reduce travelling time by one hour between Zurich and Milan. It is the world’s longest railway and deepest traffic tunnel and the first flat, low-level route through the Alps.

The primary purpose of the Gotthard Base Tunnel is to increase transport capacity through the Alps, especially for freight, notably on the Rotterdam–Basel–Genoa corridor. A more specific objective is to shift freight volumes from heavy goods vehicles (HGV) to freight trains to reduce the environmental damage caused by HGV significantly.

Figure 1: Gotthard Base Tunnel: a general overview in Europe [13]

The Gotthard Base Tunnel mainly consists of two single-track tunnels connecting Erstfeld with Bodio. It is part of the New Railway Link through the Alps (NRLA) project, which also includes the Ceneri Base Tunnel further south (opened in 2020) and the Lötschberg Base Tunnel (opened in 2007) on the other main north-south axis.

Figure 2 Gotthard Base Tunnel: a general overview of the tunnel system [Amberg Engineering]

Two interesting figures about the Gotthard Base Tunnel construction are outlined below:

  • Impact of tunnelling on arch dams of hydraulic power plant

    In the central part of the GBT (section Sedrun), three arch dams and hydropower reservoirs are located almost directly above the new GBT, approximately in the middle of the tunnel. The height of the concrete arch dams varies between 117 m for Santa Maria, 127 m for Nalps and 153 m for Curnera.
    In 1978, the driving of an exploratory tunnelling gallery for a planned highway tunnel had adverse effects on the arch dam of the Zeuzier reservoir in the Alps, causing significant settlements of up to 13 cm. Well aware of this, tunnelling engineers already started surveying the area four years before the tunnelling works began in the region and developed coupled numerical models for a forecast of the surface deformations.
  • Tunnelling challenges in squeezing rocks

    Engineers had to face challenging tunnelling conditions in squeezing rock, in the Sedrun section, in the geological section of Tavetsch Intermediate Massif North (TZM North), due to poor rock quality with low strength, squeezing properties and an 800 m thick overburden, and additionally in the Faido section, northern part, with the contact zone between the Leventina and the Lucomagno gneiss formations, under an extremely thick overburden exceeding 2,000 m.
Figure 3 Gotthard Base Tunnel: geological overview, Nalps and Sta. Maria arch dams [4]

2.    Impact of GBT tunnelling on arch dams

2.1  The Zeuzier dam case history [3]

The 156 m high and 256 m long Zeuzier concrete arch dam was built between 1954 and 1957 on the Lienne, a right-bank tributary of the Rhône in the central part of the canton of Valais. The basin is closed by a limestone rock lock, deeply cut by a narrow gorge (Figure 4).

Figure 4      Zeuzier Arch Dam: a general overview [3]

During routine surveying checks in the autumn of 1978, a slight deviation of the deformations from their usual value was observed. The dam appeared to be moving upstream. The cause of this abnormal behaviour was initially sought in the weather conditions in the current season, which turned out to be warmer than usual. However, at the beginning of 1979, when successive control measurements were performed, it became clear that the phenomenon had intensified and that differences in deformations were now totally significant; they could in no way be explained by exceptional heat conditions or inaccurate measuring. Immediately, as the level was already being lowered due to the facility’s regular operation, the order was given to drain the basin quickly.

Similarly, the driving of the exploratory gallery for the planned Rawyl road tunnel was stopped. As the reservoir level was lowered, the deformation of the structure progressed upstream. Geodetic measurements showed that subsidence had occurred in the basin-shaped area, causing a convergent inclination of the two banks which resulted in the closing of the valley (Figure 5). This convergence movement wedged the dam and caused it to deflect upstream; it was precisely this deformation that monitoring pendulums had been detecting for some months. The movements, which were extremely rapid at the beginning, slowed down progressively and were almost exhausted after 6 to 8 years.

The total settlement at the dam can be estimated at 13 cm (Figure 5) and the closing of the valley at 7.5 cm; the deflection of the dam reached 12.5 cm upstream at the keystone.

To explain the origin of these movements, various hypotheses, such as tectonic dislocations, have been put forward. Although the tectonic or seismic assumption may quickly come to mind, since it is well known that the central Valais region is subject to a certain amount of activity of this type, it cannot be denied that the real reason for these movements was an entirely different one. The extreme intensity of the movements at the beginning and their progressive and extremely regular exhaustion over the years seemed to indicate that they were independent of any seismic activity, which was minimal and did not vary significantly either during the period preceding the construction or during the construction or operation of the dam.

Figure 5 Subsidence in 1980 compared to the 1961 measurement [3]

At that time, studies were being carried out for a road tunnel to be built under the Zeuzier region between the cantons of Valais and Bern (Rawyl tunnel). Findings from geological and hydrogeological surveys convinced the engineers that the tunnel construction would almost certainly face severe difficulties due to high groundwater inflow. It was also feared that the groundwater inflow could be directly linked to the Zeuzier basin, which is only 400 m above the tunnel.

As an exploratory gallery was being built during the autumn of 1978 and the beginning of 1979, huge amounts of water flowed through small faults, reaching hundreds of l/s and peaks of up to 1000 l/s. At that time, the driving face of the gallery was more or less in the area of the dam; the settlement process began at that precise moment and intensified rapidly, causing the above-mentioned disorders and deformations (Figure 5). Work on the gallery was finally stopped in March 1979.

According to the hypothesis retained by experts [3], the Dogger bedrock (limestone) contained a captive water table that had been released. The Dogger seemed hydraulically connected to the Rawyl gallery via secondary faults. Water inflow occurred through localized open faults in the last part of the gallery. It was assumed that each fault corresponded to a rock compartment which was more or less independent of neighbouring compartments from a hydraulic point of view.

Of all the mechanisms considered, the drainage by the Rawyl gallery of the captive water table included in the Dogger formation was the one that matched best – and even perfectly – the observations made as it did not contradict any of them. The exceptional event at Zeuzier brought to light a critical phenomenon, which had been generally neglected until that time, i.e. the settlement of rock mass following a decrease in pore pressure. This phenomenon was confirmed years later by the precision levelling carried out in the 1990s over the Gotthard Pass and through the Gotthard road tunnel. Surface settlements of up to 12 cm were determined, which were the result of water drainage during the construction of the Gotthard road tunnel opened in 1980 [6.7].

2.2  Monitoring strategy for GBT

As early as 2000, i.e. five years before this area was undercrossed, a comprehensive geodetic monitoring system had been installed. The idea behind this was to constantly observe movements in the area, e.g. abutments of arch dams and dam crests alongside specific points in the lateral topography and general configuration of the area.

The following strategy was pursued by the client ATG (AlpTransit Gotthard AG):

1.  Acquire the necessary basic knowledge to be able to recognise and handle any hazard in good time by taking suitable measures:

  • Set up a large-scale measuring system to automatically monitor ground deformations throughout the year
  • Perform annual precision levelling on a large-scale network
  • Develop refined theoretical principles and numerical models and ensure continuous calibration and further development.

2.  Define suitable construction measures during tunnelling:

  • Define a catalogue of suitable exploratory measures to identify any risk of water ingress in good time
  • Record any water ingress systematically
  • Define a catalogue of suitable injection measures for sealing the rock mass
  • Provide suitably skilled staff and specialist installations to handle accidents
Figure 6: Overview of the three arch dams next to the Gotthard Base Tunnel [13]

2.2. Results of measurements

The data obtained made it possible to detect natural surface deformations as early as four years before undercrossing the arch dams. It provided clear evidence that seasonal fluctuations in the mountain water levels, due to snow melt, can cause reversible surface deformations in a fissured rock mass.

Based on these findings, statically permissible dam deformations were defined for the Nalps and Santa Maria arch dams: maximum widening of 20 and 40 mm, respectively, maximum closing of 90 and 100 mm, measured in the middle of the dam at the dam crest.

The concept of “net dewatering” has been introduced by planning engineers. It is based on the observation that there is a correlation between the gross and net amount of water taken from the rock (gross: the total amount of water, net: due to tunnel construction) and the volume of the surface settlements. It was then possible to determine the maximum permissible amount of water flowing into the tunnel in a given section and a given period without causing damaging surface deformations.

A maximum permissible dewatering volume of 456,000 cubic metres was determined for the Nalps dam for every 500 m of excavation length achieved in 12 months by applying the “net dewatering” concept. During excavation work near the Nalps arch dam, water inflows of 13 l/s were measured in the western tunnel, and after two months, water inflows of 7 to 8 l/s could still be measured. This inflow was too high and had to be reduced to 3 l/s with appropriate sealing measures (grouting), which took 100 working days. In May 2005, the effective valley closing was measured in the Nalps North cross-section where the arch dam was. The maximum crest movement out of the valley was determined subsequently: about 10 mm, constant from mid-2007 to mid-2009. During blasting, settlements could already be detected 500 to 1,000 m before the tunnel face. In 2010, when TBM driving was carried out from the south, it was possible to detect another closing of valley flanks with a maximum horizontal crest movement of up to 19 mm out of the valley. The greatest increase in settlement was only reached approx. 1km after the tunnel drive.

Figure 7: Monitoring results in Nalps [6.7], [13]

Located about 1 km north of the Lukmanier pass summit, the Santa Maria dam is significantly more distant from the tunnel alignment than the Nalps dam, with a horizontal distance of about 2.5 km. A widening of the valley had to be expected due to the subsidence caused by tunnel excavation. Based on model calculations and experiences at the Nalps dam, the Santa Maria dam was undoubtedly liable to “suffer” from TBM excavation carried out from the south.

Figure 8: Monitoring results vs computation results [6.7]

Finally, the strategy chosen for the Santa Maria dam was the observational method, as all experts were convinced that it would not be possible to remedy the expected, albeit minor, water ingress in the tunnel with reasonable effort. In addition, all structural measures on the dam had become part of the emergency measures to save costs. In the event of dam deformations, it was, therefore, necessary to define possible structural measures for each level of risk. Various criteria were used for this purpose: the tunnel advance status, the development of large-scale deformations and local deformations at the dam.

As expected, settlements, shifting and valley widening took place at the arch dam between 2010 and 2011. With settlements of about 9 to 15 mm, a 5-to 8-mm widening could be observed. A permanent 8-mm widening at crest height was predicted for 2015.

Long-term deformations estimated by using a model calculation from 2013, then corrected with values measured in 2015, produced the following results (for the Curnera dam, it appeared that no significant adverse effect could be determined due to greater distances):

DamMax. absolute settlementsMax. differential settlementsMax. closing / opening
 mmmmmm
Nalps62 ± 515 ± 220 ± 2 closing
Santa Maria12 ± 3  5 ± 216 ± 2 opening

3     Squeezing rock: challenges during excavation

3.1  Description

Squeezing rock challenges were expected in the following 2 zones (Figure 9):

  • In the northern drive of the Sedrun section, in the geological section of Tavetsch Intermediate Massif North (TZM North) and the Clavaniev Zone, due to poor rock quality with low strength, squeezing properties and a 800-m thick overburden
  • In the southern drive of the Sedrun section, in the geological section of Urseren Garvera Zone, a well-known difficult zone from the construction of the Gotthard road tunnel

Based on the experience from similar ground conditions and an intense investigation  program extreme challenges were to be expected during excavation work taking place in these 2 areas. No experience with similar conditions with an overburden of more than 800 m existed at the time of the design phase (1997 – 1999). The project management was aware that these conditions asked for an innovative solution, based on clear principles of tunnel construction.

Figure 9: Gotthard Base Tunnel: as built geology in the TZM-area (source: ATG, [6.4])

The first issue was the quality of the rock at TZM North and the Clavaniev Zone where kakiritic and heavy cataclastic rock formations alternating with hard schistose gneiss were to be expected on a tunnel length of 1.15 km in the northern drive. These formations showed a high potential of major deformations in the range of several decimetres or needed very high support pressures in order to reduce the deformations.

A stiff support based on the resistance principle was technically not feasible (cf. 3.2 Experience in the section Faido). A support system with a comparatively high support pressure but also allowing high deformations in order to reduce the required support pressure to a feasible level had to be found.

The solution was found in the mining industry by using heavy TH-steel ribs which allow high deformations (yielding principle), with an additional support by an intense radial anchoring with self-drilling steel rock bolts (Figure 10, Figure 11).

The length of an excavation cycle varied between 1.00 and 1.33 m. Depending on rock conditions, deformable TH-44 steel arches (Bochumer Eisenhütte system) were placed every 33 cm, 67 cm or 1.00 m. About 22 IBO self-drilling grout rock bolts of 8 m length per running metre were used. Average deformations in the cross-section were 25 cm, while asymmetric deformations reached 85 cm. Altogether 1150 metres of tunnel were driven in squeezing rock.


The tunnel face was supported by 12 m long self-drilling grout rock bolts and up to 10 cm thick mesh-reinforced shotcrete layer.

Figure 10: Gotthard Base Tunnel: cross section in squeezing rock of the Sedrun section [6.2]
Figure 11: Gotthard Base Tunnel: different support systems and construction procedure in squeezing rock of the Sedrun section [6.2]

This innovative tunnel drive system was tested on site up to the ultimate load (Figure 12)

Figure 12: Gotthard Base Tunnel: testing properties and deformed tunnel support in squeezing rock [14]

The excavation of the two single-track tunnel tubes at TZM North was executed in full-face cross-section by conventional tunnelling using mechanical excavation with a hydraulic hammer. Drill and blast had to be used only in few cases of hard intermediate layers. In addition to the basic installation of a conventional tunnel drive, a suspended tunnel drive was used (Figure 13) for the large cross-section of up to 13 m diameter in squeezing rock sections in order to guarantee an industrialised production process also in most difficult zones with a daily advance rate of 1.0 meter. This rate could be achieved during more than three years tunnel drive in the squeezing rock zone.

Figure 13: Gotthard Base Tunnel: suspended tunnel lining installation (source: ROWA/GTA, [6.2], [14])

The northern drive in the Sedrun section could be finished more than 6 months ahead of the contractual program thanks to a clear concept and an innovative industrialized production method. With the successful construction of this tunnel section, it could be shown that with well-founded engineering knowledge and implementation-oriented planning, new territory in tunnel construction can be successfully entered.

Fortunately, the expected squeezing rock zone in the southern drive was by far shorter than foreseen in the forecast and therefore also less difficult. Within a short time, a timely advantage of several months in relation to the contractual program could be achieved.

3.2 Unexpected squeezing rock zones in the Faido section

The biggest challenge with the squeezing rock zones at the Gotthard Base Tunnel was posed unexpectedly during the construction of the multifunctional station of Faido in the transition zone between the Leventina gneiss to the Lucomagno one (Figure 14). This transition had been crossed already three times in the project area without any further problems. Also, the scientific literature showed no indication of difficulties in this transition zone.

Figure 14: Gotthard base Tunnel: geology MFS Faido

In the section where the squeezing occurred, the mountain overburden exceeded 2,000 m.  This phenomenon intensified especially on the northern side of the Faido multifunction station (MFS). Based on the initial ground model a stiff support based on the resistance principle was chosen.

Nevertheless deformations could not be stabilised despite a circular cross-section and the use of HEB180 steel arches and a 40 cm thick concrete lining (Figure 15).

Figure 15: Gotthard Base Tunnel: HEB180-tunnel support in squeezing rock of the Faido section (source: IG GBT south. [6.6])

After nine months and 160 metres of drive, work had to be stopped. With a larger diameter (12 m) and a flexible lining with TH arches, anchors, sprayed concrete, and lining slits, approx. 125 m of tunnel were driven a second time. In total, radial deformations of up to one metre were recorded (Figure 15, Figure 16).

Figure 16: Gotthard Base Tunnel: cross section in squeezing rock with old section in the background (source: TAT, [6.6])

In the western tube, the drive had to pass through one of the two fault zones in the Lucomagno gneiss.

Figure 17: Gotthard Base Tunnel: yielding elements in squeezing rock formation (source: IG GBT south, [6.6])

After more than five years dealing with unexpected very difficult ground conditions in the Section of Faido, the TBM drive could be started in the northern direction. The squeezing phenomena lasted during several months of the TBM drive and asked also for certain reconstruction work [6.5] .

The unexpected ground conditions in Faido asked for additional resources and caused a delay of more than two years and additional costs of more than 500 million CHF.

3.3 Lessons learned from the two cases

Difficult ground conditions can be handled properly if they are detected in advance. If they show up unexpectedly, all you have to do ist get through and limit the damage, even if additional time is needed and the costs are high.

4. References

[1] FGU Fachgruppe für Untertagbau, Dokumentation SIA D 0222, Swiss Tunnel Congress 2007 – Fachtagung für Untertagbau

[1.1] Matousek, F. and Lützenkirchen, V., ” Bergwasser beim Gotthard-Basistunnel – Bisherige Erkenntnisse “, pp. 37 – 44

[1.2] Theiler, A. and Meier, R., ” Injektion einer wasserführenden Störzone – Konzept und Ausführung “, pp. 51 – 60

[2] FGU Fachgruppe für Untertagbau, Dokumentation SIA D 0229, Swiss Tunnel Congress 2008 – Fachtagung für Untertagbau

[2.1] Kovári, K. and Ehrbar, H., ” Gotthard Basistunnel, Teilabschnitt Sedrun – Die druckhaften Strecken im TZM Nord – Projektierung und Realisierung “, pp. 39 – 47

[2.2] Böckli, O., ” Teilabschnitt Faido – Bisherige Erfahrungen mit dem TBM-Vortrieb “, pp. 49 – 58

[3] Lombardi G., ” Les tassements exceptionnels au barrage de Zeuzier “, 1988, Publication No. 118, de la Société Suisse de Mécanique des Sols et des Roches, Réunion d’automne, Berne

[4] Anagnostou, G, and Ehrbar, H., Tunnelling Switzerland, 2013, Base Tunnels of Alptransit, ” Gotthard Base Tunnel” p. 56, “Middle Part of GBT, Subsection Sedrun” and  ” South Part of GBT, The Faido and Bodio Subsections”, pp. 56 – 73

[5] AlpTransit Gotthard AG, 2. Auflage 2016, ” Das Jahrhundertbauwerk entsteht “: “Das Tunnel- und Baukonzept “, p. 29 – 31, ” Der Teilabschnitt Sedrun “, pp. 56 – 72 and ” Die Überwachung der Stauanlagen” pp. 156 – 159

[6] Ehrbar, H., Gruber, L.R., Sala, A., 2016, STS Swiss Tunnelling Society, ” Tunnelling the Gotthard “

[6.1] Keller, F. and Flury, St., ” Exploration of geological risk zones “, pp. 78 – 81

[6.2] Ehrbar, H., ” The Tavetsch intermediate massif north: proof of feasibility “, pp. 154 – 165, https://www.heinzehrbarpartners.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/2016_Ehrbar-TZM-Nord.pdf

[6.3] Gruber, L. R., and Holenstein, U., ” Conventional tunnel drives at Sedrun “, pp. 286 – 299

[6.4] Guntli, P. and Ehrbar, H., ” Ground conditions Sedrun “, pp. 354 – 359

[6.5] Röthlisberger, B., Spörri, D., Jesel, Th., ” Unexpectedly difficult ground conditions in the Faido–Sedrun TBM drives “, pp. 368 – 375

[6.6] Röthlisberger, B., Spörri D., Rehbock-Sander, ” Unexpectedly difficult ground conditions at MFS Faido “, pp. 384 – 391

[6.7] Bremen, R., Ehrbar, H., Löw, S., ” Passing under the dams “, pp. 398 – 405

[6.8] Löw, S., Lützenkirchen, V., Hansmann, J., Masset, O., Guntli, P., ” Groundwater inflows into the Gotthard Base Tunnel and hydromechanically coupled deformations in the Gotthard massif “, pp. 406 – 413

[6.9] Ebneter, F., Salvini, D., Schätti, I., ” Surveying – control works during passing under the dams “, pp. 444 – 454    

[7] Stiftung Hänggiturm Enneda, Museum für Ingenieurbaukunst, ” NEAT – Eine Schweizer Pionierleistung “, 2. ergänzte und aktualisierte Auflage 2008, pp. 49 – 51 and 74 – 75

[8] Kovari K., Amberg F., Ehrbar H., 1999, ” Mastering of Squeezing Rock in the Gotthard Base “, World Tunneling, pp. 234-238

[9] Berchten A. R. (1985) ” Repair of the Zeuzier Arch Dam in Switzerland “. lnternational Congress on Large Dams, Lausanne 1985. Vol. II, Q. 57 – R. 40, pp. 693 – 711

[10] Biedermann R. (1980) ” Ausserordentliches Verhalten der Staumauer Zeuzier “. Wasser, Energie, Luft, Heft 7/8, pp. 182 – 184

[11a] Biedermann R., Gicot O., Egger K., Schneider T.R., Berchten A.R., Lombardi G., Amberg W. (1982) ” Abnormal Behaviour of Zeuzier Arch Dam (Switzerland) “. Wasser, Energie, Luft, Special lssue to ICOLD, Rio de Janeiro, April 1 982. Vol. lll, pp. 102 – 109

[11] Pougatsch H. (1982) ” Unexpected Behaviour of a Large Dam in Switzerland lnternational Congress on Large Dams, Rio de Janeiro 1982, Vol. l, Q. 52 – R. 40, pp. 627 – 640

[12] Schneider T. R (1982) ” Geological Aspects of the Extraordinary Behaviour of the Zeuzier Arch Dam “. lnternational Congress on Large Dams, Rio de Janeiro 1 982, Vo. II, Q. 53 – R. 38, pp. 601-621

[13] Ehrbar, H., Bremen, R., Otto, B; ” Gotthard Base Tunnel – Mastering surface deformations in the area of two concrete arch dams – innovative solutions “, World Tunnel Congress 2012, Bangkokhttps://www.heinzehrbarpartners.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/2012-WTC-Ehrbar.pdf

[14] Ehrbar, H.;” Sostenimientos deformables para túneles excavados a gran profundidad y sujetos a grandes presiones “, Mexican Tunnel Congress 2014, Mexiko https://www.heinzehrbarpartners.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/MexicoAmitos2014-EHRBAR-web.pdf