Gotthard Rail Tunnel, World's Longest and Deepest, Opens Under Swiss Alps

Fireworks are let off as the first train emerges from the new Gotthard rail tunnel in Switzerland, WednesdayLaurent Gillieron / AP

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By Alastair Jamieson

Yodeling and a triumphant Alpine horn heralded the inauguration Wednesday of the longest, deepest railway tunnel ever constructed — a feat of engineering that will slash journey times across Europe.

The Gotthard Base Tunnel under Switzerland's Alps has taken 17 years and cost about $12 billion to construct and removes one of Europe's most stubborn natural barriers to trade and tourism: the lack of a fast route through the mountain range at the crossroads of four countries.

A marching band and fireworks greeted the arrival of the first high-speed train to pass through the 35.5 mile tunnel on Wednesday.

Related: Gotthard Tunnel Hailed as 'Incredible' Feat of Engineering

There also was an oddball opening ceremony of music and interpretive dance, with topless angels, acrobats and furry goats entertaining guests as two special trains carrying VIPs passed in either direction through the tunnel.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi were among the dignitaries in attendance.

Artists perform during the opening show on Wednesday.GABRIELE PUTZU / EPA

PHOTOS: Bizarre Stage Show Opens Rail Tunnel

Guy Parmelin, the Swiss minister of defense and civil protection, told reporters that the tunnel’s completion gave his country a chance to display its "knowhow" and to show that "when Switzerland takes on a commitment, it keeps it."

Related: ‘Incredible’ Rail Tunnel Will Be World’s Longest, Deepest

Once the route for commercial service opens in December, it will take up to 260 freight trains and 65 passenger trains per day — reducing the number of cars and trucks clogging the roads between northern and southern Europe.

The tunnel runs between the German-speaking town of Erstfeld in the north and Italian-speaking Bodio in the south, and covers such a distance that the weather is often different at either entrance.

It eclipses the Seikan tunnel in Japan and the 31.3-mile underwater Channel Tunnel linking England with France, and is 10 times longer than Boston's Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, Jr. Tunnel. Running up to 1.4 miles under the snow-capped peaks of the Alps, it is also deeper than any other rail tunnel.

Swiss Federal President Johann Schneider- Ammann and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were among the guests at the opening of the world's longest rail tunnel.Peter Klaunzer / AP

Several existing underground routes take trains or cars and trucks under the Alps, but all are choked by traffic levels well above their design capacity.

The new tunnel has much lower gradients that will allow passenger trains to travel at up to 155 miles per hour, reducing the journey times between Zurich, Switzerland, and Milan, Italy, from just over four hours to two-and-a-half hours.

However, the maximum benefits won't be realized until another tunnel at Ceneri, to the south, is opened in 2020. That will allow trains to haul tractor-trailers with a height of up to 13 feet, according to the Rail Journal.

The Associated Press contributed.