The Simplon Tunnel Exploding Head Syndrome

Well, it was probably just a coincidence that my head almost exploded and my ear piercingly popped while roaring on a train through the Simplon Tunnel last week.

Normally, we drive the car over the Simplon Pass (2006m) to Italy, following the old Neolithic trails that were widened by Roman Legions, firmly established by 17th-century merchants (Kaspar Jodok Stockalper famously running salt, iron, gold and mercenaries) and institutionalised by Napoleon in 1805. On the high roadside pull-offs you step into the chilly winds and take pictures of a stark treeless landscape and lugubrious granite buildings. Time slows. You buy a brick of cheese with mountain flower petals in it at Simplon Dorf and wish your pants were thicker.

Not so on the train. If anything, there is a certain air of feverishness as you pull out of Brig and turn the corner towards the cloudy mountains. The train blows its whistle as it roars into one side of the double-mouthed tunnel. It then speeds up; and I think I have discovered why: The train driver has heard the grizzly story of the tunnel’s construction and he wants out of there as soon as possible.

The tunnel is almost 20 kilometres long. It is pitch black and as hot as hell–about 56C when you get to the point where the mountain on top of you is more than two kilometres thick. Miners began digging the tunnel in 1898 and by 1906 when the first tube was opened, 106 of them had died.

During the tunnelling, which consisted of drilling holes with Brandt hydraulic drills and packing them with dynamite, there were all kinds of problems. There were the surprise hot springs that suddenly gushed out.  There was a huge leaky water reservoir ABOVE the tunnel. There was a soggy section made out of water-logged clay that bent the iron girders and snapped the massive oak beams. Men couldn’t work in the extreme heat and insulated cold water hoses had to be installed.

A second tube was finished in 1921 and the problems shifted. During WWII the tunnels were mined—ready for instant destruction if they fell into enemy hands. James Bond killed an enemy in there on the Orient Express in 1957. In 2011 there was a fire.

So, finally, it was of little importance that at one point mid-way through the Simplon Tunnel my head had a pressure-blow-out.

Intensive research has discovered all of the above true facts, along with a scientific paper which mentions this tunnel pressure phenomenon. The short paper is entitled Measurements of Train-Induced Pressure Variations in the Simplon Tunnel and, unfortunately, did not measure what happens inside passengers’ heads.

Arriving at the south end of the tunnel in shabby old Domodossola was a lovely relief. We dragged our bags to a concrete backless bench and under the clear blue sky happily ate our sandwiches on the graffitied train station platform. And waited for what was going to happen next.


Joy Kundig

Joy Kündig-Manning est née en Angleterre et a vécu au Canada. Spécialisée dans la littérature anglaise du XVIIIe siècle, elle a travaillé comme traductrice, enseignante, et écrivaine. Mariée à un Suisse, elle est venue à Genève en 1977. Elle est très contente de tenir le premier blog du Temps en anglais!