Big moves: Swiss Railways’ infrastructure upgrades

Adele Berti 6 August 2019 (Last Updated August 6th, 2019 09:39)

The Swiss Federal Office of Transport recently published its annual progress report for railway infrastructure development projects. From the ambitious New Rail Link through the Alps to the four-metre corridor, here is a look at the projects and the progress they’ve made over the past year.

Big moves: Swiss Railways’ infrastructure upgrades
Major modernisation works are currently taking place at the iconic Albula Tunnel, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Credit: Flickr / Kecko.

New Rail Link through the Alps (NRLA)

The largest and most ambitious project in the history of Swiss Railways, the New Rail Link through the Alps (NRLA) kicked off in 2007.

“The NRLA will reduce journey times between north and south.”

Strategically launched to enhance connections between Switzerland and its neighbour countries, it consists of building three base tunnels through the Alps – namely the Gotthard, Lötschberg and Ceneri – to create a level-track route crossing the mountains.

With the first two already opened, the project will cost a total of CHF23bn and is scheduled to be completed by 2020 with the inauguration of the Ceneri base tunnel.

Once operational, the NRLA will reduce journey times between north and south by an hour for passenger trains, while also creating new rail freight opportunities.

High-speed connections

Around CHF1bn is being invested on delivering a number of high-speed rail links to improve access to the European high-speed rail network by 2020.

Under development since 2005, these projects aim to build high-speed routes to Germany and France as part of a wider plan to promote Switzerland’s tourist attractions and trade relations, as well as improve its environmental credentials. They will, in fact, trigger a further shift from road cargo transport to the railways.

“These projects will also help cut travelling times towards key European hubs.”

According to the Office of Transport’s report, these projects will also help cut travelling times towards key European hubs such as Paris, Lyon, Munich, Ulm and Stuttgart.

Trains from Basel now reach Paris half an hour faster, while journey times to Munich will be an hour shorter once completed in 2020.

Noise reduction on the railways

Early proposals to cut down noise pollution were put forward almost 20 years ago as the Parliament set aside almost CHF9bn to support a series of measures meant to improve quality of life for those living near the railways.

“Swiss Railways is planning a new set of noise abatement measurements.”

The Swiss Government then launched a programme of modernisation of its rolling stock – both for passenger and freight trains – which was completed by 2016. The scope of the programme also included building some 276km of noise barriers, as well as installing over 70,000 sound-isolating windows.

A further CHF1.515bn has since been set aside by authorities to finance a follow-up programme that introduced a binding emissions threshold for cargo trains. In addition, a ban on noisy wagons with grey cast iron breaks will come into effect in 2020.

Finally, Swiss Railways is planning a new set of noise abatement measurements on the track, while also providing grants for the purchase and operations for quiet freight carriers and investing in R&D.

Future Development of the Railway Infrastructure: the ZEB programme

The ZEB programme was launched in 2009 as a continuation of its predecessor, the ‘Bahn 2000’ scheme. It’s a nationwide package comprising a series of infrastructure measures paving the way for the introduction of 400-metre double-decker trains on the West-East Axis via Bern route.

“The project will allow for the deployment of double-decker trains.”

With an investment of CHF5.4bn, the project will also allow for the deployment of double-decker trains along the Lausanne-Brig line in Valais.

Designed to drive growth across all Swiss regions, it includes plans to support the NRLA by improving access routes to the Gotthard and Ceneri Base Tunnels, therefore generating more frequent rail freight traffic.

Within this framework, Switzerland is also on track to build the new Eppenberg Tunnel, another major infrastructure project that will facilitate the creation of a four-line corridor.

Swiss Railways’ report claims that as of 2018, about 80% of the projects within this scheme is either under development, operating or complete; they are scheduled to be completed by 2025.

The 4m corridor

Over the past few years, the Swiss Government has made moving its transalpine cargo from the road to the railways one of its top priorities.

In practical terms, this will be achieved by building a 4m corridor on the Gotthard route linking Switzerland to transhipment terminals in northern Italy.

“The corridor will allow for the transportation of greater freight volumes.”

Once operational, the corridor will allow for the transportation of greater freight volumes through semi-trailers with a corner height of 4m.

A total of CHF990m will be invested in this project, which is on track to be finished by late 2020. On the other side of the Alps, Italy is conducting complementary works, which will allow for cargo to reach Milan.

According to Swiss Railways’ annual report, these works are proceeding as planned.

Expansion step 2025

The rail expansion step 2025 falls within a wider project to fund and expand rail infrastructure (FERI), which finances major development works to improve Switzerland’s infrastructure.

“The aim of the scheme is also to eliminate bottlenecks across the network.”

Since its approval in 2014, it has started a number of development works worth CHF6.4bn that will help increase capacity in major rail hubs, including Geneva, Basel and Bern.

The aim of the scheme is also to eliminate bottlenecks across the network, supporting the rising demand for rail travel.

Throughout 2018, about 75 projects related to the initiative have been carried out according to plan. As of 2019, all projects part of the programme have officially kicked off.

The CEVA rail link and the new Albula Tunnel

Developed as part of the Mobility 2030 Master Plan – which aims to improve metropolitan transport and intermodal links between France and Geneva – the Cornavin-Eaux-Vives-Annemasse (CEVA) rail link is due to be completed by the end of 2019.

“The finalised link will also become part of a wider transport network.”

According to the report, it is a crucial aspect of the future Léman Express regional line. As part of the project, Swiss Railways will build five new stations alongside its 16km of track in order to improve connections between the Cornavin area of Geneva and Annemasse in France.

Worth about CHF1.6bn, the finalised link will also become part of a wider transport network serving 45 stations in the area surrounding Geneva.

Meanwhile, major modernisation works are also taking place at the iconic Albula Tunnel, a UNESCO World Heritage site that was inaugurated in 1903.

The project, whose costs exceed the initial budget and are now around CHF373m, was slated to be completed by late 2021 and is now due to reopen in April 2022.

Introduction of the ETCS

Throughout 2018, Swiss Railways has overseen the introduction of the European Train Control System (ETCS) Level 1 Limited Supervision (L1 LS) across all its major standard-gauge sections.

“Swiss Railways has equipped 2,650 checkpoints with speed monitoring devices.”

This has led to enhanced security throughout the network, as the operator has equipped 2,650 checkpoints with speed monitoring devices. In 2019, it is planning to introduce a further 50 devices as part of several other infrastructure projects.

The Swiss Federal Office of Transport will then decide whether and how to implement ETCS Level 2 technology across its standard gauge network by 2025.