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Why isn't Switzerland building any high-speed rail?

Why isn't Switzerland building any high-speed rail?

With the Swiss public transport network recently revealed to be one of the slowest in the world, many people across the alpine nation may wonder why more isn’t being done to speed up journey times. As the rest of Europe continues to plan more super-fast high-speed rail lines between cities, why isn’t Switzerland following suit?

Switzerland claimed to have Europe's slowest rail network

While there are many words to describe the Swiss rail network - reliable, punctual, expensive - fast is definitely not one of them. Indeed, a new study by Watson claimed that Switzerland has the slowest rail network in Europe.

While countries across Europe plan major high-speed rail projects - or already have extensive high-speed networks - the majority of routes between Swiss cities are still covered at an average of 100 kilometres an hour. Indeed, the alpine nation only has five sections of track that allow for speeds over 200 kilometres per hour, namely the Gotthard, Ceneri and Lötschberg Base Tunnels and parts of the route between Solothurn and Wanzwil and Mattstetten and Rothrist.

This means that Switzerland only has 164 kilometres of high-speed track, far less than France (2.800 kilometres), Italy (1.467 kilometres) and even Austria (280 kilometres).

Watson noted that journey times between Geneva and Zurich could be slashed by 41 minutes if high-speed tracks were built between the two cities (where possible). Other major time savings could be made between Zurich and Basel, Biel / Bienne and Zurich and Geneva and St. Gallen.

Why isn't Switzerland building more high-speed rail?

This has led many to question why the Swiss government isn’t building any high-speed rail. Here's why shovels aren't hitting the Earth:

1. SBB prioritise frequency and capacity over speed

Speaking to Watson, Federal Office of Transport director Peter Füglistaler said that for Switzerland, “Capacity takes precedence over speed” when it comes to improving the rail network. “We want public transport for all, not just fast trains for a few”, he continued, arguing that on most lines a lack of capacity is the more important issue to tackle.

This policy was revealed in Swiss Federal Railways’ (SBB's) 2035 Service Concept. In it, the rail provider suggested that while it was planning to have trains run every 15 minutes between the major Swiss cities, it would abandon trying to make the services run faster.

2. Trains are still faster than cars on most Swiss rail routes

Füglistaler also argued that SBB's main mission should be competing with cars, and that from that perspective, many rail routes are already as fast as they need to be - with the exceptions of Zurich - St. Gallen and Bern - Lausanne. He added that Switzerland is too small for high-speed rail to be worth it, as stops are usually much too close together.

3. High-speed rail could increase urban sprawl

The director also questioned the consequences of building high-speed rail: “Commuters could travel long distances more quickly, which would encourage urban sprawl. Do we really want, for example, for people to choose to live in the Lake Constance region and work in Zurich? This is neither desirable from an ecological point of view nor in relation to land use planning.”

4. Swiss high-speed rail would cost billions

Finally, there is the matter of cost, with Füglistaler noting that high-speed rail projects in Switzerland would not be value for money. For instance, he estimated that a high-speed rail line between Zurich and the Gotthard Base Tunnel would cost at least 10 billion francs to build. “With this sum, we can build a good regional express network (RER) in Basel, which extends to the French and German border region,” he noted.

Density more important than speed, transport director argues

In all, Füglistaler concluded that by prioritising local services, Switzerland ensures “good accessibility even outside the centres. Public transport offers a dense network in all regions. For our country, this is more important than increased travel speed between a few large cities. No one is left behind.”

Thumb image credit: nui7711 / Shutterstock.com

Jan de Boer

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Jan de Boer

Jan studied in York and Sheffield in the UK, obtaining a master's in broadcast journalism and a bachelor's in history. He has worked as a radio DJ, TV presenter, and...

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