New north-south rail routes across the Swiss Alps
A citizen’s group in the US to which my father belongs asked me for an
overview of the new north-south rail routes across the Swiss Alps and the
kind of freight trains that (will) use them. I came up with the text below.
(Sorry for the miles, which are easier for Americans than km.)
Does anyone have any corrections, caveats or additions?
Thanks in advance!
The new north-south rail routes across the Swiss Alps
The original north-south rail route over the Gotthard Pass, which has a
nine-mile tunnel at its summit, opened in 1882. An engineering marvel, it
involves lots of curves – including “dog bones” and spiral tunnels – and
heavy grades. Freight trains require multiple locomotives and have a
relatively slow transit time. The same is true of the roughly parallel route
over the Lötschberg Pass, about 60 miles to the west, which also has a
nine-mile summit tunnel and opened in 1913.
In recent decades, as north-south freight flows between Germany and Italy
increased dramatically, truck transportation became an attractive
alternative to these rail routes, especially after the 1980 opening of
divided highway A2 on the Gotthard route, which includes a two-lane, 11-mile
But the population objected to the noise, congestion, pollution and
environmental damage generated by the trucks, particularly in deep Alpine
valleys. Planning therefore began on a new, nearly flat rail route through
the Alps. In the late 1980s, a debate raged over which route should get the
new tunnel, the Lötschberg or the Gotthard. Each region wanted the project.
In the end, Swiss lawmakers compromised and decided to build two tunnels,
but to save money limited the 21-mile Lötschberg Base Tunnel to just one
track for about two-thirds its length. Swiss voters approved this plan in
1992 and in 1994 also approved a constitutional amendment aiming to limit
the number of trucks passing through Switzerland.
The Lötschberg Base Tunnel opened in 2007. (A second bore was built along a
second third of the tunnel, but no track was installed. The plan is to
finish the second bore and track later if needed.) The southern portal of
the Lötschberg tunnel is at Visp. About six miles to the east, at Brig, the
route turns south again to enter the 12-mile Simplon Tunnel, whose first
track opened in 1906 and second in 1921.
The 35-mile Gotthard Base Tunnel is slated to open in 2016.
The Lötschberg Base Tunnel does and the Gotthard Base Tunnel will carry all
the same kinds of freight trains that run on the rest of the European rail
- Unit trains of bulk freight such as grain, chemicals and petroleum
products and solid trains of new automobiles.
- Intermodal trains carrying truck trailers, containers or “swap
bodies” on flatcars. Swap bodies are like containers except that they (like
many European truck trailers) have a sliding canvas roof for side loading.
Unlike containers, swap bodies are not stackable and do not travel in ships.
In Europe, low tunnels and bridges and overhead wire for electric traction
prohibit the “double stacking” that allowed US railroads to double the
productivity of container trains. Even the new Gotthard Base Tunnel could
not accommodate double stacks.
- Mixed freight trains containing railcars of different types that
move between classification yards
- A relatively small number of special trains on which the whole
tractor-trailer drives into a flatcar. The truck drivers ride in a coach
attached to the train. Such trains typically run between terminals in
southern Germany and northern Italy. To accommodate high trucks, such trains
are composed of very low flatcars running on 16 small-diameter wheels
instead of eight normal-sized wheels. Because they spin much faster, the
smaller wheels cost significantly more to maintain. The conventional design
requires that the tractor-trailers all drive onto the train from the end. In
another, more recent design, a pivoting tray on each flatcar swings out so a
tractor-trailer can drive directly onto the flatcar. This design provides an
even lower platform and thus can carry even higher trucks.
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Am 22.11.2014 17:07, schrieb 'George Raymond':
In the late 1980s, a debate raged over which route should get theThere was a third route, the "Ostalpenbahn", a tunnel from Thusis to Chiavenna or to Bellinzona. As a compromise an "Y" was proposed, starting in Uri and Graubï¿½nden and ending in Ticino. But Eastern Swiss lobbies were not as strong as those in Western Switzerland.
- Unit trains of bulk freight such as grain, chemicals and petroleumI'm not aware of petroleum products crossing the alps in important quantities, as there is a pipeline through the alps to the two Swiss refineries. When one of these refineries was closed, additional quantities came via Basel. Northern countries are deserved by pipelines or from Northern ports.
On the other hand, worth mentioning are steel and clay, crossing the alps on rails.
- A relatively small number of special trains on which the wholeIt's worth adding that all piggy back traffic is heavily subsidized and it's thus not clear, how long this traffic will survive. Several routes were closed already (not only in Switzerland). Only remaining is Freibrug i.Br. - Novara, plus one train Basel - Lugano with restricted clearance, mainly used by tank trucks (chemicals), that are not allowed through road tunnels.
RAlpin transports little more than 100'000 trucks p.a., with a maximum of 21 trucks (truck + trailer or tractor + long trailer) per train for Freiburg - Novara and 28 for Basel - Lugano.
This sort of piggy back is mainly used by smaller firms who don't have tractors and drivers at both ends (Germany and Italy). Therefore the trains contain a sleeping car for the truck drivers.
The alternative Modalohr system is only efficient for trailers travelling alone.
You should not use the term Lotschberg Pass. Unlike the Gotthard and Simplon, There is no such thing as the Lotschberg Pass (this is a very common misconception made by many people). The Lotschberg is a generic term coined when the railway was built, but is not a geographical feature. The Pass is called the Lotschenpass, and the valley on the south side of the Lotschberg is the Lotschental.
Note to moderator/group - all o umlauts ignored as my computer freezes every time I try and do the special character required.
Am 24.11.2014 00:53, schrieb Gordon Wiseman:
You should not use the term Lotschberg Pass. [...]While Gordon is absolutely correct with this, that there is no
Lötschberg Pass, he could have known that the correct spelling when
Umlauts don't work is simply "Loetschberg". ;-)
The Lotschberg is a generic term coined when the railway was built,However, this is not correct. There /is/ a Lötschberg, seen here:
Markus, Gürbetal (may be spelt Guerbetal)
On 23/11/14 23:53, Gordon Wiseman email@example.com [SwissRail] wrote:
Note to moderator/group - all o umlauts ignored as my computer freezesTry changing your newsreader to use plain text with UTF-8 encoding. That should fix any problem.
"I have never understood why it should be necessary to become irrational in order to prove that you care, or, indeed, why it should be necessary to prove it at all." - Avon, Blake's 7
I think it is worth pointing out a couple of differences between the western (Lötschberg/Simplon) and eastern (Gotthard) routes.
To the east, both Gotthard routes pass over/under/through the full (north-south) width of the Alps, linking northern Switzerland to the Ticino valley and then Italy. Further to the west, the Alps are split by the Rhone valley (running east-west) into two roughly parallel chains, the Bernese Alps to the north and the Pennine Alps to the south. The two Lötschberg tunnels pass only under the Bernese Alps, linking Bern to the Rhone valley. The Simplon tunnel then passes under the Pennine Alps into Italy; besides traffic coming from northern Switzerland this also carries traffic from France and western Switzerland that reaches it up the Rhone valley.
The other difference is the existence of road links.There are several road routes in the east (not least those over and under the Simplon Pass. There is no equivalent road link across the Bernese Alps west of the Grimsel Pass (the Lötschenpass that other contributors to this thread talk about is of interest to geographers and mountaineers but not drivers).
As a result the Lötschberg rail route carries a significant amount of road vehicles on shuttle services. These are short distance routes, basically just through the tunnel, and shouldn't be confused with the longer distance truck carrying trains you talk about. I stand to be corrected, but I believe these trains all still use the old Lötschberg tunnel.
Going off-topic a little, before the original Lötschberg tunnel was built, one of the main routes from the Rhone Valley to Bern was over the Gemmi Pass, a mule track from Leukerbad to Kandersteg. The first Cook's tour of Switzerland went that way, having caught the train from London to Paris and Geneva, and there is in existence a journal written by a young Victorian lady on that tour. The account makes you realise how easy we have it travelling in Switzerland these days.
Chris makes some good points. I have always been fascinated by Alpine pass routes - there are some hidden historical gems out there - like the military tunnels at the top of some routes in the French Alps never converted to public roads.
As such if history had taken a different turn the Gemmi Pass might have become a main road pass route. Another fascinating pass nearby is the Col du Sanetsch (Sion - Gsteig), which has never been made into a main road despite the existing road ascending from the south side doing the 'hard part' by crossing the highest point of the pass. The other pass route in that area never to become a road is the Rawil pass (Ayent - Lenk).
Don't forget that some 'famous' routes like the Susten and Nufenen were not opened up as main roads until the 1960s (and there are some even more recent road pass openings but that's straying further off topic).
The Gotthard pass is the main north-south corridor. The Simplon actually connects Domodossola with Brig and the Rhone valley line to Lausanne and Geneva. The Loetschberg rail line connects Brig to Spiez and Bern, providing an alternate north-south corridor to the Gotthard.
There are road routes throughout Switzerland, ranging from the Spluegen/San Bernardino passes from Thusis (Chur) to Messoco (Bellinzona), the Lukmanier from Disentis to Biasca, the Nufenen from Ulrichen to Airolo and the St Bernard pass from Orsieres to Aosta.
Of those routes, a number of them are seasonal and are not open year round. Many of them have no direct north-south access and require travel to the east or west to connect with other north-south routes.
There was talk of developing a new rail route between Lindau - Chur - Thusis to Ticino or Italy, which would offer an alternative to the Brenner Pass (Austria). Trains rerouted from the Brenner must undertake a long passage to use the Gotthard that a pass in Grisons would simplify, but the project never found the backing at the federal level. This line would benefit traffic from the Munich area, but areas further west have easier access to the existing Gotthard and Loetschberg lines as traffic from the west would have to travel around the Bodensee (Lake of Constance) or the Zurichsee (Lake of Zurich) to access a Grisons route.
There have been some discussions about opening up rail connections between the RhB in the Engadin with areas further up the Inn valley in Austria and with adjacent valleys in Italy. The fact that the RhB is narrow gauge would complicate any through traffic from the regular gauge mainlines.
Am 25.11.2014 18:32, schrieb firstname.lastname@example.org [SwissRail]:
There was talk of developing a new rail route between Lindau - Chur -As I already wrote, the Ostalpenbahn and the Y-project didn't find majorities in the parliament. But there was then (as some sort of replacement) a decision to build a Hirzel tunnel, allowing easier access to the Gotthard from Munich. That would have been Lindau - Sargans - Pfï¿½ffikon SZ - Zug. Hirzel tunnel was later postponed and since, nobody has asked, if would be built some day. So, think of it as cancelled...
There have been some discussions about opening up rail connectionsThe RhB projects belong to the category tourism rather than category freight traffic!
Mike C wrote :
> The Gotthard pass is the main north-south corridor. The Simplon actually connects Domodossola with Brig
> and the Rhone valley line to Lausanne and Geneva. The Loetschberg rail line connects Brig to Spiez and
> Bern, providing an alternate north-south corridor to the Gotthard.
It would certainly be interesting to know what the actual traffic densities across the Gotthard, Lötschberg and Simplon routes are. Certainly the fact that a Lötschberg base tunnel has been built, but nobody seem to be talking about a new Simplon tunnel does rather suggest that capacity was not the issue on the western routes (as otherwise surely the Simplon would have been the pinch-point not the Lötschberg).
There are road routes throughout Switzerland,
No, actually I don't think there are. Whilst there are obviously a fair number of such passes, they are not evenly distributed. There are significant sections of the Alps where there are no through road routes, even in summer. The most obvious of these is the Bernese Alps, where the only driving choices even in mid-summer are to go east-about over the high-alpine Grimsel Pass, or west-about around the end of the high mountains. These two routes are about 100km apart, which is quite a gap.
This isn't a totally off-topic point, because there is a rail route (actually two now) smack across the middle of this road-free zone, and this fact does influence the usage of the Lötschberg line.
I wondered about the Simplon but then realised that once the upgrading works have been completed, it is a relatively straightforward route with few of the restrictions and track capacity problems of the old Gotthard and Lotchberg routes. As the Gotthard route seems to be a primary artery and that there will be capacity released once the new tunnel is opened (and the bottle neck south of Bellinzona removed once the Ceneri base tunnel opens), I should imagine that the pressure on the north south arteries will be much reduced. I should also imagine that with the Italian economy in the doldrums, there will be not much appetite there for an expensive infrastructure project for the foreseeable future. It will only be when the European economic situation returns to strong growth and demand for transit moves through Switzerland increases will the need for more infrastructure become apparent and I cant see that happening for many years yet.
Thanks to everyone who contributed to this thread a few months back. I have forwarded all your replies to the citizens' group for whom I wrote the text you reacted to.