An Engineering Feat of the Century for Switzerland and Europe

Written by Andreas Meyer

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Innovation, precision and reliability – the Gotthard Base Tunnel impressively illustrates these Swiss values. It improves the performance of goods and passenger transport, both in Switzerland and in cross-border transport between north and south.

At 57 km, the Gotthard Base Tunnel is the longest rail tunnel in the world. Just as impressive as its size are the opportunities the tunnel offers for goods and passenger transport. The start of operations on December 11, 2016, heralds the beginning of a new railway age on the north-south axis of the Gotthard. With the completion of the 4m corridor and the Ceneri Base Tunnel, this route will be operating fully from the end of 2020. Goods transport will profit from a 44 percent increase in capacity. Journey times for passengers will be shortened by 30 minutes from the end of 2016, and from 2020, by a full 60 minutes. New rolling stock will considerably increase the quality of passenger travel from 2019.

Andreas Meyer, CEO, SBB CFF FFS. Photo: François Gribi
Andreas Meyer, CEO, SBB CFF FFS. Photo: François Gribi
By rail through the Alps
The highest point of the Gotthard Base Tunnel is 500m above sea level. In the context of international transport, the new Gotthard tunnel is the most important milestone on the way to flat-trajectory rail through the Alps. European railway chiefs laid the foundation stone for integrated flat-trajectory rail transport in June this year in Lugano. Deutsche Bahn, Ferrovie dello Stato Italiano and Schweizer Bundesbahn looked at ways to profit from the effect of the Gotthard Base Tunnel across the entire goods transport corridor from Rotterdam to Genoa by planning cross-border tracks and by reserving international rail tracks. Goods transport by rail will thereby become more efficient and environmentally friendly, and road traffic across the Alps will be increasingly diverted to rail.

More connections
The 1,300km-long corridor from Rotterdam to Genoa is, according to EU definitions, one of the six key transport routes of the continent. With a total of 28.5 billion tonne-kilometres for all carriers, it is also the most heavily used route in Europe. Each week, about 1,500 trains carrying international goods run between Rotterdam and Genoa across Switzerland. The Gotthard tunnel will allow capacity on this route to increase considerably. The number of train journeys possible on the north-south Gotthard axis will increase from 180 to 210 a day from the end of 2016. After the Ceneri tunnel and the 4m-corridor begin operating at the end of 2020, 260 journeys a day will be possible. This will be a quantum leap for goods transport by rail, above all in combined transport. From that that point on, around 200,000 to 300,000 additional semi-trailers could be diverted from the roads to the railway, according to market estimates. This equates to between 8,000 to 10,000 trains a year in combined transport.

Europe is getting smaller
The flat-trajectory rail will enable goods transport to not only increase but also to become much more efficient. Journey times will become as much as an hour shorter – Europe will become smaller. At the same time, goods trains will become longer, heavier and more efficient – Instead of the 580m-long, 1,600 tonne trains with three locomotives on the old route, the start of operations at the Gotthard tunnel will allow trains 750m long and 2,000 tonnes in weight which can be pulled by one locomotive. This will reduce energy consumption in goods transport accordingly. The modern train control system, ETCS Level 2, allows for denser traffic, with trains every three minutes. Trains will travel more reliably through the mountain making it easier for customers to plan, as interruptions to the route caused by weather conditions can be largely eliminated.
In addition to the advantages for transit transport through Switzerland, Ticino will be much better connected. Combined transport operators, for instance, will have access to an improved service, for example for fresh produce travelling from the south to the north. For important destinations in Ticino, SBB Cargo is planning as many as three deliveries a day in future.

Transport of the future
The Gotthard is and remains a special place where transport history has been written since time immemorial. That was the case with the Gotthard Scheitel tunnel in 1882 and it is the case today, just before the longest rail tunnel in the world begins operating. The Gotthard tunnel is also a pipeline to the transport of the future. Mobility is undergoing a deep and fast transformation. New technologies in the area of digitisation, new customer needs and increased competition between different modes of travel are changing the transport market as demand continues to increase. With innovation, precision and reliability, we will master these challenges and add chapters to the success story of rail transport.

Publication date: 03 November, 2016