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Swiss obsession with tunnels continues

A year has passed since Switzerland inaugurated the world’s longest railway tunnel: the 57-kilometre-long Gotthard base tunnel. More ambitious tunnel projects are in the pipeline.

“The main rail and road routes in Switzerland are overburdened with traffic and need to be expanded,” explains Walter von Andrian, editor of the Swiss Rail Review. “However, nobody is willing to give up land and endure traffic noise.”

According to von Andrian, tunnel projects get the green light because nobody is really inconvenienced. However, not much thought goes into the maintenance and operation costs required over the next few decades, he says.

Solving the Zimmerberg bottleneck

The route between Zurich and Baar, in canton Zug, has been described as one of the weakest links in the Swiss rail network by the press. Trains running from Zurich to the new Gotthard base tunnel still pass though single-track tunnels that are over a century old. The first phase of the Zimmerberg base tunnel – from Zurich to Thalwil – has already been built. However, without the second phase, the project makes little sense, according to Swiss Federal Railways, which has included it in its expansion plan for 2030-2035.

“When the project gets completed is another question,” says von Adrian.

The underground cargo dream

Plans are afoot to transport goods across Switzerland in a giant underground tunnel. The private project “Cargo Sous Terrain” (underground cargo) is a fully automated underground freight network that aims to reduce pressure on road and rail traffic. The promoters have been working on the idea for five years and in March a company was created to make it a reality.

Dual-purpose Grimsel tunnel

The idea of connecting the Bernese highlands with the upper Valais region by piercing a 22km tunnel through the Grimsel massif is being explored. The tunnel would connect the narrow gauge tracks of Bern and central Switzerland to the rest of the Swiss railway network. This would allow Switzerland to have the largest narrow gauge rail network (850km) in Europe.

What make the project unique is the involvement of Swissgrid, which is in charge of Switzerland’s national electricity grid. As Swissgrid needs to renew part of its power network over the next ten years, it plans to use the Grimsel tunnel to lay down high-voltage power lines. However, in April a Swissgrid spokesperson stated that the project was no longer a priority and that the construction of power lines had been postponed. There is a possibility that Swissgrid may even abandon the underground route for cost reasons.

Von Andrian sees the dual-purpose tunnel as an ideal solution but is also pessimistic about raising the necessary funds to accomplish it.