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The ultimate Gotthard tunnel year

29.01.2016 – Jürg Müller

The world’s longest railway tunnel will go into operation by the middle of the year. Just a few months before that, on 28 February, the Swiss people will vote on a new road tunnel. This makes the vote extremely topical.

An event without parallel will mark the opening of the tunnel without parallel. From 1 June this year, trains will thunder through the Gotthard base tunnel on schedule and the opening of the world’s longest railway tunnel will be celebrated with great fanfare. The event will not just be attended by the entire Federal Council, all 246 members of the National Council and Council of States as well as further dignitaries from the worlds of business and culture. The guest list also includes heads of state and government from all neighbouring countries, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and the transport ministers of all the other EU states. The Swiss people will join in later in the celebrations that are expected to cost 12.5 million Swiss francs.

The cost is justified in so far as the large-scale project of the New Railway Link through the Alps (NRLA) sends out a Europe-wide signal about the transportation of people and goods by rail. However, tunnel fever at the Gotthard is far from over. After the railway tunnel built in the 19th century, the road tunnel opened in 1980 and the new railway base tunnel, a fourth hole through the Gotthard is already in the pipeline – a second road tunnel costing 2.8 billion Swiss francs. Boring work is set to begin in 2020. The Federal Council and Parliament believe the second tunnel is necessary because the existing road tunnel will have to be completely renovated in around ten years’ time. However, around 50 organisations and political parties are opposed to the project, including the SP, the Greens, the Green Liberals and the Swiss Evangelical People’s Party. They have therefore called a referendum against the proposal.

There were good reasons for the Swiss people and cantons enshrining the Article on the Protection of the Alps in the federal constitution in 1994. This aims to protect the Alps against the negative impact of transit traffic on the road and prohibits an increase in the capacity of transit roads in the alpine region. In 2004, the Swiss people also rejected the counter-proposal to the Avanti initiative. Swiss voters have therefore already opposed a second Gotthard road tunnel twice, either directly or indirectly.

Dangerous road tunnel

The existing road tunnel will have to be closed during the renovation work. With a second road tunnel instead of temporary rail transportation of cars and HGVs, the road link to Ticino would be permanently secured and Europe’s most important north-south road transit axis would not be impaired. To ensure that the protection of the Alps enshrined in the constitution is not jeopardised and traffic levels do not increase, only one lane per direction would be used, even after the renovation of the existing tunnel. Advocates of the project also argue that two tunnels without contraflow would be much safer. The Gotthard road tunnel is today “one of the most dangerous tunnels in Europe”, according to the St. Gallen FDP Council of States member Karin Keller-Suter, a member of the pro-committee.

Susceptible to blackmail by the EU

Opponents contend the proposal offers false promises. They believe there will be an increase in capacity sooner or later and that two lanes will be used in both directions. It will be difficult to stand by this plan as soon as the first traffic jams appear, writes Jon Pult in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”. The co-chairman of the “No to the 2nd Gotthard tunnel” association also believes: “The structural doubling of the road capacity makes Switzerland susceptible to blackmail by the EU with regard to transit policy.” Switzerland would not be able to withstand the EU and the transport industry for long and would fully open the tunnels. The doubling of capacity could soon turn into twice as many transit HGVs. That would spell the end for the protection of the Alps and the shifting of the transport of goods to rail targeted by the NRLA. The soon to be commissioned Gotthard NRLA base tunnel is nevertheless Switzerland’s single most expensive infrastructure project.

The opposition does not therefore just consist of the left-of-centre groups that called the referendum. There is also a conservative No committee. The cantons of Basel-Stadt and Uri are also opposed to the project, as are some politicians from Ticino, including the mayors of Chiasso and Mendrisio, who fear even more traffic. However, there is also a left-wing committee in favour in Ticino. The battle lines therefore run through political parties to some extent.

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