Switzerland Shows the Future

Transportation in both Zürich (above) and Basel is much more balanced than in Victoria. Half the households in Zurich don’t even own cars. There are over 4,000 sensors in the roads. If a road is full, a red light comes on, which won’t allow private vehicles to enter until traffic clears out.

There are some things you might not know about this Alpine burg. It’s home to ETH Zürich, one of the world’s top-rated schools for science and engineering. Some of its alumni include Albert Einstein and legendary math titan John von Neumann. In all, 21 Nobel laureates went to the elite Swiss school. ABB, the giant Swedish-Swiss maker of electrical distribution systems, robotics and a whack of other stuff, is headquartered in Zürich. On a smaller scale, more than 300 companies run in the Technopark, which is central instead of way out in the toolies, plus well served by trams.

In this alpine burg, because downtown streets don’t get clogged up, the system of clean and frequent trams, trolleybuses, diesel buses and ferries runs with (surprise!) great punctuality. There is very little parking downtown, so there’s not much point circling the block looking for a free stretch of curb. In spite of that, downtown businesses are doing great. No, let’s make that Tony Tiger grrrrrrreat. Zurich’s main street, Bahnhofstrasse is one of the priciest retail strips in the world, not quite in the same league as upper Fifth Avenue, but let’s say you won’t find any dollar stores. Retail space is about as expensive as on Tokyo’s famous Ginza. In spite of the city’s rep as a staid banker’s haven, there is a lot of artistic stuff going on, and a zappy nightlife.

The second biggest Swiss burg of Basel—which sits on the Rhine River smack on the junction with France and Germany—has even lower auto use than Zürich, and cycling is more popular (Zürich tram rails are sometimes not very bike-friendly).

Another way our triangular chocolate bar-producing friends have it together is getting long-distance diesel trucks off highways and onto electric trains. Somewhere between 65-70% of trans-Alpine freight through Switzerland goes by rail, way ahead of France and Austria. A major reason for this is a successful intermodal road/rail company called Hupac. Created in 1966, it’s a consortium of Italian-Swiss trucking and logistics companies and minority shareholder SBB, the Swiss national railway. Hupac owns its own railcars and locomotives, and did 431 million euros in business in 2016. They have big plans for a Eurasian rail bridge stretching across Russia and China to every part of Europe.

The humungous story though, the mutant Godzilla with a chunk of Golden Gate Bridge hanging from its mouth, is NRLA, the New Railway Link through the Alps. This massive infrastructure project was passed by 64% of voters in 1992. It creates two north-south rail corridors. NRLA’s centerpiece is the 57 km long Gotthard Base Tunnel, which cuts travel time between Milan and Zürich by an hour. The structure, which opened in 2016, is so long that it isn’t measured in a straight line, but in something called a geodesic line, which allows for the curvature of the Earth.

To the west of Gotthard is another tunnel, Lötschberg Base, which greatly improves efficiency between Turin and Basel. If this were any other project, Lötschberg would be big news, but because it’s a mere 34.5 km long, it’s overshadowed by its kick-sand-in-your-face eastern buddy.

NRLA isn’t just tunnels. Many stations and bridges on the corridors had to be enlarged, and a tariff placed on trucks to pay for it all. When the final stage of NRLA, the Ceneri Base tunnel, is done in 2020, Switzerland has a truly epic fondue party planned.

By Louis Guilbault, of Victoria BC. I have no financial connection to any rail manufacturer or consultant. Please contact regarding errors or omissions.

For more background on General Motors’ and others’ roles in destroying electric railways in the US, see Taken for a Ride, an informative 1996 PBS production, on youtube.