Sissi at the Transport Museum

On the sidewalk in front of the Transport Museum (Verkehrshaus) in Luzern, they have set up the front end of ‘Sissi’, one of the four gigantic tunnel boring machines that were in use simultaneously for several years to create the Gotthard Base Tunnel, a flat rail route consisting of two 57-kilometer single-track tubes running from north to south beneath the Swiss Alps.

Each boring machine had a diameter of 9.58 meters. Note the people walking past on the sidewalk, in my first photo, to get an idea of how huge the machine is.

Back view of the ‘Sissi’ drill head

Attached to the drill head, when it was in use, was a maze of wires, motors, computers, sensors and remote controls. According to the museum label, this particular machine “was set to work in the eastern tube: from Bodio to Sedrun,” in other words it started at the south end and worked its way north, drilling through “almost 25 kilometers of rock, thereby transporting an excavation volume of 1.7 million cubic meters out of the mountain.”

The other three tunnel boring machines also had women’s names: ‘Heidi’ drilled the other tube starting at the south end, while ‘Gabi I’ and ‘Gabi II’ drilled the two tubes starting from the north end.

Full-scale mock-up of a tunnel section

In the museum courtyard, they have installed a full-scale mock-up of a tunnel section of the Gotthard Base Tunnel, showing how the rails are bolted to the tunnel floor, and how the electric wires are strung from the ceiling.

Model of the Gotthard Base Tunnel at a scale of 1:1000

Inside the Transport Museum we can see a long model of the Gotthard Base Tunnel, showing how high the mountains are above the tunnel (2,300 meters at the highest point) and the different kinds of rock it goes through, with samples of the different rocks on display. Every few kilometers there is a photo, showing (for example) places where trains can be switched over from one tunnel to the other, or places where passengers can be evacuated in case of emergency.

A closer view of the model, showing the different rock formations

The Gotthard Base Tunnel went into operation in 2016, and is now the main north-south route for trains through the Swiss Alps, for instance from Frankfurt to Milan.

This is the second railway tunnel to be built through the Gotthard Massif; the first, dating from 1882, is higher and shorter, but is still in use for regional trains.

Before the tunnels were built, the only way to cross this part of the Alps was through the Gotthard Pass at an altitude of 2,186 meters. The day before my visit to the Transport Museum, I had been to the Richard Wagner Museum on the other side of Lake Lucerne and read about Wagner’s journey over the Gotthard Pass in an open sleigh during a snowstorm in 1858.

Mock-up of the front end of the new Giruno trains

At the south end of the model, there is a mock-up of the front end of the new high-speed Giruno trains, made especially for use in the Gotthard Base Tunnel by the Swiss manufacturing company Stadler Rail. Incongruously, some railway cars from a century earlier are parked directly behind it on the same track.

My photos and text in this post are from 2022.

See more posts on Luzern, Switzerland.
See more posts on train travel in Europe and Vietnam.

16 thoughts on “Sissi at the Transport Museum”

  1. Your blog was a great help to me recently. I was in Lucerne at the museum in 2021. Fascinated by the drill outside, took a picture but failed to keep info on the drill and the tunnel. Your blog allowed me to put information into my picture album (yes, I still do those) along with my picture. So, when my kids throw out my albums after I am gone, they will at least get a brief glimpse into a phenomenal piece of engineering.

  2. Amazing to see the size of these drill heads – I’m glad you included the people for scale! And interesting that they give them girls’ names, but they seem to be short on imagination if they had to use Gabi twice rather than come up with a fourth name!

    1. I haven’t been able to find any explanation for this, but my guess is that two of the head honchos of this project were both married to women named Gabi.
      (Sorry for the late reply, but somehow your comment got shunted off into my spam queue.)

  3. I love these types of museum. But I would like to know which parts of the drill head are the actual cutting blades.

  4. You may know this already, but we have similarly preserved machines in England, being those which were used to create the Channel Tunnel, tunel sous la Manche. And like these, the size is pretty impressive.

      1. When I was little, my parents would go from Maryland to Colorado to visit my grandmother. This would have been 1942 during WWII when gas was rationed. My daughter and her fiancé rode the train in Canada from the Pacific to the Atlantic. And I’ve ridden the train up and down the east coast. It’s easier and quicker to get to NYC from D.C. by train than it is to fly.

      2. Ah yes, we have trains. We’ve taken the train from Sacramento to San Francisco for the airport. They are few and slow and pulled over constantly to let freight pass and most stations are pretty out of date and in the worst parts of town. Most smaller cities and virtually all towns have no rail service at all. They just aren’t convenient and many trips involve long stretches where you are put on a bus to get to your next connection. This can involve a several hour bus ride. European trains are much nicer and much more convenient.

    1. The design is used over and over again, but the individual machines get completely worn out after several years of use and have to be replaced.

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