Railweb Reports

For a vote against the second Gotthard road tunnel on February 28

Posted by George Raymond on February 19, 2016

The Swiss will vote on February 28 whether to build a second Gotthard road tunnel. The existing 17-km, two-lane road tunnel opened in 1980 and takes users of Switzerland’s main north-south motorway under the Gotthard Pass. The Swiss Federal Council – which heads Switzerland’s executive branch of government – is leading the campaign for the second, parallel tunnel. But as the referendum approaches, polls show ever-stronger opposition. The authoritative Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) newspaper has recommended a no vote. Here is my view of each side’s arguments.


In favour of the second tunnel: Proponents say the second tunnel will improve safety by separating northbound and southbound traffic. On October 14, 2001, a fiery truck collision in the tunnel killed 11 people. Between 2002 and 2014, 10 more people died in a total of 147 accidents.

Against the second tunnel: In an NZZ article, Hansueli Schöchli calculated that the second tunnel will cost some $75 million per life saved and said that the usual threshold for investments to improve safety is $5 million to $10 million per life saved. (I am assuming 1:1 parity of the Swiss franc to the US dollar; as of this writing on February 19, 2016, they are very close.) The tunnel will thus in fact reduce safety by diverting scarce public funds from other projects in Switzerland that could save the same number of lives at much lower cost.

Also, the current emergence of self-driving cars and trucks can be expected to significantly increase safety in the two-lane, bi-directional tunnel.

Maintaining the north-south link

In favour of the second tunnel: Proponents of the second tunnel say it will maintain the road link between central and southern Switzerland – and between northern and southern Europe – during the 3.5 years of closure necessary to enlarge and rehabilitate the current road tunnel to today’s standards for ventilation and emergency escape.

Against the second tunnel: Opponents point out that the second road tunnel will in fact be the fifth tunnel under the Gotthard pass. The other three are rail tunnels. The north-south motorway roughly follows the older Gotthard rail route, and the existing road tunnel parallels a 15-km rail tunnel at the route’s summit. And the twin, 57-km bores of the new rail tunnel though the Gotthard’s base will open in December 2016.

Tunnel opponent groups propose building temporary road/rail terminals at each end of the new, 57-km rail tunnel. This will allow trains to carry trucks through the new rail tunnel during the exisiting road tunnel’s 3.5-year closure. A service that in the past carried automobiles though the 15-km rail tunnel at the summit will also be reactivated. Existing rail services that carry trucks, trailers, containers and swap bodies over longer distances on the north-south Alpine route can be expanded. In any case, many long-haul shippers can be expected to use alternate north-south road routes through France and Austria or long-haul rail services during the road tunnel’s closure.

According to the NZZ, rehabilitating the existing road tunnel is estimated to cost about $760 million. The substitute rail service, including the terminals, rolling stock and train operations, is estimated to cost between $690 and $910 million. The second road tunnel will cost about $2 billion to build and $24 to $30 million extra a year to operate.

Proponents of the second road tunnel object that the terminals at each end of the 57-km rail tunnel will occupy valuable land for just 3.5 years, then be dismantled, only to be rebuilt in 40 years, when the two-lane, bi-directional bore must be rehabilitated again.

Some opponents counter that after the road tunnel’s rehabilitation, the terminals can start putting trucks and loading units on long-haul trains, thus reducing pressure on the north-south motorway and its two-lane tunnel under the Gotthard.

The need for closure

In favour of the second tunnel: Tunnel proponents say that the enlargement of the existing road tunnel will involve heavy construction work, including blasting, and that closing the entire tunnel for 3.5 years is the only economical approach.

Against the second tunnel: The NZZ has argued that rejecting the second road tunnel now would leave time for engineers to find innovative ways to rehabilitate the existing tunnel without closing it completely for 3.5 years. Its rehabilitation can be ongoing, like a cathedral’s. Andreas Steiger, who engineered a similar project in a comparable road tunnel in Luzern, Switzerland, argued in the NZZ that rehabilitation is possible during nightly closures.

Protecting the Alps

In favour of the second tunnel: Tunnel proponents promise that upon completion of work in about 2030, one lane of each tunnel will be for travel and the other will be a breakdown lane. In 1994, to protect the Swiss Alps from further growth in road traffic, Swiss voters amended their constitution to forbid any increase in trans-Alpine road capacity. Opening both lanes in both directions will thus be physically possible but unconstitutional.

Against the second tunnel: Tunnel opponents predict that if two lanes are available in each direction, the temptation to open all four lanes to traffic will be irresistible. The European Union will also press for four lanes. Tunnel opponents compare the belief that the Swiss constitution will prevent use of all four lanes to the earlier belief that Swiss bank secrecy laws were immune to international pressure. The second tunnel is thus de facto a violation of the Swiss constitution.

George Raymond can be reached at graymond@railweb.ch.

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