The Swiss construction project of the century – linking northern and southern Europe
138 years after the completion of the legendary Gotthard railway tunnel – already a masterpiece in 1882 – a new milestone has been reached on the historic Gotthard route. The opening of the Ceneri Base Tunnel on 4 September 2020 marks the completion of the construction project of the century – the New Rail Link through the Alps (NRLA), which forms the core of Europe's main north-south freight route extending from Rotterdam to Genoa. Following on from the Lötschberg and Gotthard base tunnels, this is the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle to complete the flat-track rail link through the Alps.
The Alps have always been a topographical obstacle and crossing them demands innovative solutions. This challenge has constantly spurred Switzerland on to achieve ever more technological breakthroughs. Switzerland is situated at the heart of Europe, right in the middle of the 2,500km-long rail freight corridor known as the Rhine-Alpine corridor, which links the North Sea to the Mediterranean. In order to provide more efficient transit routes between north and south, Switzerland has invested significant resources in building three new base tunnels through the Alps as well as additional connecting lines: the overall project is known as the New Rail Link through the Alps, or NRLA for short. Three new tunnels form the core elements of the NRLA: the 34.6km Lötschberg Base Tunnel, the 57.1km Gotthard Base Tunnel (the world's longest railway tunnel) and the 15.4km Ceneri Base Tunnel, which completes the Gotthard route.
Linking north and south
With the Lötschberg and Gotthard routes, Switzerland is making an important contribution to European transport policy. The rail route between Rotterdam/Zeebrugge and Genoa is the most heavily used in Europe and according to forecasts the volume of freight carried on it is expected to rise significantly. It runs through the industrial heart of Europe and connects growing economic regions with the industrial centres of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Duisburg, Cologne, Frankfurt, Mannheim, Basel, Zurich, Milan and Genoa. Thanks to the new NRLA base tunnels, which cross the Alps at the level of the Swiss plateau and replace the existing mountain lines as the main transport routes, the capacity for freight transport will be significantly increased. The low gradient means that in future trains will no longer require an additional locomotive on the Gotthard route, saving both time and money, and making it possible to accommodate longer trains with more weight.
The improved north-south route also means shorter travel times and more connections for passenger transport, bringing not only the different parts of Switzerland but also the surrounding countries closer together. The journey time from Zurich to Lugano as well as from Zurich to Milan will be shortened by about 45 minutes. The Ceneri Base Tunnel will also raise standards on the regional rail network in the canton of Ticino, thanks to massively reduced journey times and better connections. The Lötschberg Base Tunnel on the Simplon route has similarly reduced travelling times by 20 minutes.
Direct democracy at work for greater sustainability
The NRLA is an integral part of Switzerland's sustainable transport policy, which centres on shifting as much transalpine traffic as possible from road to rail. The Swiss electorate voted in favour of the project in several referendums and in 1992 approved the construction of the NRLA by a clear majority.
The NRLA lends new momentum to the shift from road to rail by offering an efficient alternative to road transport for passenger and freight traffic through the Alps. Through the road-to-rail policy, around 800,000 journeys through the Alps by heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) can be avoided each year. Meanwhile the railways have been able to increase their market share to over 70% of goods transported. Despite the general growth in traffic, the number of HGV journeys made through the Alps has declined, falling from 1.4 million in 2001 to around 900,000 in 2019. However, the target has yet to be reached – the goal being to reduce this to a maximum of 650,000 HGV journeys per year.
With the NRLA, Switzerland is showing solidarity by helping to ensure the protection of the Alps through environmentally friendly handling of the flow of goods across Europe.
Conquering the Saint-Gotthard massif has been a long, arduous journey over the centuries: beginning with the mule track through the Schöllenen gorge around 1230; to the Gotthard stagecoach, which wended its way over the Gotthard pass from 1830; to the first tunnel's breakthrough at the end of 1880; and finally to today's technological marvel through the Alps, culminating in the opening of the Ceneri Base Tunnel in 2020.
One thing is for certain, there is more than one cause for celebration on 4 September: not just the completion of one of the largest Swiss construction projects in history, but also a pioneering connecting structure at the heart of Europe and a milestone in European rail transport.