Top speed through the alps

Issue: Issue 2/ 2016
To discover speedier railway travel, Anitra Green takes a peek behind Switzerland's CHF 11.2 billion New Rail Link through the Alps.

Warmer months are here and that means Switzerland's highways will start filling with local and foreign cars heading on holiday. With the increased traffic, you can't say the Swiss aren't good neighbours. In the centre of Europe and surrounded by EU countries, they're spending money on a huge project to make life easier for anyone who wants to get themselves or anything else across the Alps in the shortest possible time. Of course you can fly, drive or take the train on one of the scenic, curvy routes but Switzerland is about to cut the ribbon on its New Rail Link through the Alps, or NRLA, and the future belongs to a faster train.

Map of the NRLA lines

NRLA is a long-term plan to provide a flat railway through the Alps without endless climbs up steep Alpine valleys. This means building long tunnels that start at low altitudes and have no inclines, so trains can run at up to 250 km per hour. The idea of doing this was first mooted in 1947 but began to gain steam in the 1990s when the Swiss voted "yes" to new railway tunnels on the Gotthard and Lötschberg routes.

Aerial Photo Camorino

While part of the goal is to provide tourists and businesspeople with faster travel routes, another involves environmental protection of the Alps from modern civilization. One of the key pollutants is freight transport of vast amounts of goods from the Far East — electronic equipment, car parts, cheap textiles, plastic goods and more — that are transported across the Alps to industrial centres in Italy. However, only a fraction can go by road. If the Swiss have their way, in the future there'll be even fewer trucks on the Gotthard motorway and instead most of the freight will go by rail, thanks to the NRLA.

Gotthard base tunnel

This is the biggest project of the lot. The Gotthard Base Tunnel at 57 km from Erstfeld to Bodio is the longest railway tunnel in world, beating the Seikan tunnel in Japan (53.9 km).

Aeration tube installation in Erstfeld

The grand opening is on 1 June and it'll be quite a party, with bigwigs from all over the world coming to this unique event. There'll be open days for the public on 4 and 5 June with festivities at both ends of the tunnel and a full programme of events. However, the tunnel will only fully come into use when the new timetable is introduced in mid-December (the Swiss do this every year).

But even then, the fast route to Milan won't be complete till the Ceneri Base Tunnel is finished in 2020. At only 15.4 km long, this also is an essential part of the NRLA. Then you'll be able to get from the centre of Zurich to the centre of Milan in just three hours. It takes four at the moment.

The Lötschberg

This 34.6 km tunnel between Frutigen and Visp was the first NRLA project to be built, opening in 2007 but not fully completed at the time because of financial constraints. So though the twin tunnels have both been bored, only one is fully equipped which limits the number of trains that can use it. However, work will resume this year so both tunnels can be used from 2025 onward.

The NRLA, which by the way is costing a cool CHF 11.2 billion, also includes further minor projects to improve connections with other parts of the country. And what about the existing lines on the Gotthard and Lötschberg routes? Well, they certainly won't be closed. The Gotthard mountain line, as they call it, will be used for regional traffic and tourist trains since it's a very scenic route. And the Lötschberg route is already an extremely useful and efficient car-shuttle service between Kandersteg, Canton Bern and the Rhone Valley, especially in winter. 


Photos and map: © AlpTransit Gotthard AG

Author: Anitra Green

Has been in Switzerland long enough to be part of the scenery. Studied classics in London, now a railway journalist. Favourite occupations: travelling, hill walking, singing, good food, good wine and good company.

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