Once upon a time there was the Cozie Alps pass, the Fréjus Pass, 2541 meters high, between the Susa valley and the Maurienne, between Bardonecchia and Modane. For centuries it had been an atrocious passage for man, difficult, dangerous. An obstacle to trade between Southern and Northern Europe. One hundred and fifty years ago, under that passage, the first large tunnel was built in a mountain. To the north-east of the pass stands the tip of the Fréjus of 2936 meters, under which, in fact, today the railway tunnel passes, 13,636 meters long, at an average altitude of 1200 meters.
In the nineteenth century, “The Royal Academy of Sciences”, as Massimo Mori, President of the Academy of Sciences remembers today, was the protagonist of the Fréjus challenge. Just today, an important two-day international conference ends at the Academy of Sciences, 150 years after the inauguration of the Fréjus Tunnel, in the splendid setting of the Sala dei Mappamondi.
The meeting, in addition to retracing the history of its construction, of the geological and technical aspects of this great nineteenth-century technological challenge, was proposed as an opportunity for interdisciplinary debate on the current and future vision of the new tunnels. The novelty of the International Conference on the Fréjus Tunnel are many. On the one hand, the Turin study days do not have a celebratory tone, but are an opportunity for interdisciplinary debate on the current and future vision of rail transport and on the problems relating to the construction of large deep tunnels, an infrastructure that is now essential for the construction not only alpine tunnels.
More than twenty speakers from different backgrounds and activities met in Turin, including numerous members of the Academy of Sciences. Not by chance. In fact, some illustrious members of the Academy of Sciences contributed to the construction of the Fréjus Tunnel, from the spheres of science and technology and from those of politics and government institutions, as well as Quintino Sella himself (National Member since 1856), and the Academy itself was also involved as a scientific institution. 150 years after the inauguration of the tunnel, the conference at the Academy wanted to evoke that extraordinary historical scenario of fertile interaction between scientific culture and political strategies that made it possible to win the challenge of creating the first European transalpine corridor, which also entered, thanks to the simultaneous construction of the Suez Canal, in the visionary project of the intercontinental corridor of the «Valigia delle Indie».
After a first session on historical contextualization, the conference proposed three other sessions: the first, in the afternoon of 6 October, set on the preventive geological studies for the construction of the great tunnels through the Alps, from the base railway tunnels (completed or in progress ‘work), together with the innovations they have produced for the geological knowledge of the Alpine chain and related models. The second, on the morning of 7 October, with an interdisciplinary debate on the current and future vision, regarding the scientific, technical-economic, and transport policy aspects for a modern demolition of the Alpine barrier through the new railway tunnels. The third, in the afternoon of 7 October, on the technical-scientific aspects of the excavation for the construction of tunnels and tunnels, technological progress made in the last 150 years and the role of specialist technicians in the design, construction and maintenance of this type of infrastructure, such as the railway between Turin and Lyon.
The Fréjus Tunnel (sometimes called by the French as “railway tunnel du Mont-Cenis”), designed by Giuseppe Francesco Médail (born in Bardonecchia on September 24, 1784, died in Susa on November 6, 1844), was built between 1857 and 1870 by the Italian engineers Germano Sommelier, Severino Grattoni and Sebastiano Grandis.
Sommelier had patented the pneumatic drill with Grattoni and Grandis. This tool actually allowed the excavation of the tunnel, based on the invention of Giovanni Battista Piatti, with whom Sommelier developed a long dispute. Thanks to it, workers from France and Italy met under 1600 meters of rock on December 26, 1870 at 4.30 pm (according to the French journalist of the weekly L’Illustration, Journal Universel).
The Fréjus Tunnel was opened to traffic on September 16 and inaugurated on September 17, 1871 in the presence of the King of Italy Vittorio Emanuele II with a speech by the Minister of Finance Quintino Sella, who praised the first demolition of the barrier of the Alps and the consequent opening up of Italy to Europe. The French would have liked to affix this plaque: “Un travail herculéen a permis de forcer la porte des Enfers”. Something less Dante and more appropriate to the century of civilization was chosen, leaving space for other works. For the French it was a difficult time after La débâcle and the costs of war. For them, the tunnel represented a hope for trade and a turning point in international relations. The empire of Napoleon III, decisive for the unification of Italy, had been defeated in Sedan in September 1870 by Bismarck’s Germany. In 1871 the Second Reich was born in Versailles. The Commune had disrupted not only Paris, but the new Republic itself, which blossomed from the ashes of the empire. On 30 September 1871, L’Illustration, Journal Universel concluded a series of articles in “La percée des Alpes” with these reflections: “Puisse ce tunnel, que nous venons de parcourir avec le lecteur, devenir un trait d’union plus intimate encore entre les différentes nations de l’Europe; et si quelques rivalités mesquines soufflaient encore la colère et la haine autour de nous, rappelons-nous vite que les lauries ne s’acquièrent plus dans le sang; rappelons à haute voix ces deux admirables victoires du génie de l’homme, que l’on appelle: «Suez et Mont-Cenis».
At the time of its opening, the Fréjus Tunnel, faster and safer in all weather conditions than the pass, was the longest railway tunnel in the world, and remained so until June 1882, when the Gotthard tunnel was opened to traffic. 15 kilometers
The first train to cross the Fréjus Tunnel was “un Paris-Rome” in October 1871.
The Turin Academy of Sciences event is on the institution’s YouTube channel. It will also be visible in the coming days, pending the publication of the Acts, of great interest, with the publication of many unpublished documents.