Overview

The New Rail Link through the Alps (NRLA) is designed to transform Switzerland by opening up a new dimension in mobility. The largest transport project for decades strengthens Switzerland's standing within Europe and connects the northern and southern parts of the continent with new tunnels through the Lötschberg, Gotthard and Ceneri mountains and upgraded connecting routes. The vision of a new rail line crossing the Alps dates back to around 1950. After lengthy planning and heated debate between the different parts of the country and political groups, construction work begins in earnest in 1999. The NRLA is a milestone in the history of Switzerland and Europe.

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1805

The first paved road through the mountains

The NRLA follows on from a centuries-old tradition of transport routes through the Swiss Alps.

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Phase 1
1882 - 1960

Growth in traffic

The first tunnels through the Gotthard, Simplon and Lötschberg mountains are built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Traffic levels then...

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1847

An iron road made of steel

The rail is not a standard design: it goes through multiple variants in the course of its development.

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1853

The long-standing committee

The legendary Gotthard mountain range also gives its name to a committee. Dedicated to promoting development of the Alpine axis, it was formed in 1853.

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1868

Ticino sets the pace

The peripheral region of Ticino boasts some magnificent historic stations. The locals are quicker off the mark than their counterparts in central Switzerland, building while money is still available.

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22 May 1882

Inauguration of the Gotthard Tunnel

When it opens, the first tunnel through the Gotthard is the longest rail tunnel in the world. It is mostly financed by foreign capital.

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1897

The Gotthard railway in literature

Spitteler, Moeschlin and Schädelin are just some of the writers captivated by the Gotthard railway.

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19 May 1906

The second tunnel

After the Gotthard, the Simplon Tunnel becomes the second rail line through the Swiss Alps. Now, western Switzerland is connected to the south.

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1 May 1909

Nationalisation of the Gotthard Railway Company

The SBB is created following the nationalisation of Switzerland’s major private railways. The last to be integrated is the Gotthard, which proves to be the most profitable line.

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15 July 1913

Link through the Lötschberg

The Lötschberg line and its tunnel connect Switzerland’s western plateau with Italy.

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1914

The battle with nature

Railways are a comparatively environmentally friendly means of transport. In the Alps, however, they come up against the forces of nature.

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1916

The first base tunnel

Long before the Gotthard and Lötschberg, the first base tunnel in Swiss rail history is driven through the hills at Hauenstein near Olten.

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1924

Water replaces coal

Electrification of the Gotthard line is completed in 1924. Switzerland now gets the energy to power its trains from its own hydroelectric plants rather than coal from Prussia.

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1947

The Europe-Africa Express

An engineer has a vision: from Basel to Chiasso by rail in just two hours – time enough for a shower, a haircut and some telephone calls.

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1957

Rail tourism

Rail is a popular means of transport. Switzerland’s railway lines contribute to its success as a tourist destination.

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Phase 2
1961 - 1983

Idea and planning

Politicians and engineers develop a plan for a new rail tunnel linking the north and south of Switzerland in the 1960s. The primary motives behind...

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31 January 1962

The Gotthard Base Tunnel

The Confederation moots the idea of a «Gotthard Base Rail Tunnel», and commissions Elektro-Watt to develop a project.

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25 June 1965

Car vs rail

Rail has held onto its lead for a long time, but with the opening of the Gotthard road tunnel in 1980 road transport through the Alps mounts a strong challenge.

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20 June 1970

The tunnel plan

Specialists arguing for a Gotthard Base Tunnel point to Switzerland’s important position as a European transit nation.

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1971

The abortive project begins

The plan for the first Gotthard Base Tunnel is thwarted by the economic crisis of the mid-1970s.

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6 June 1971

Environmental policy turnaround

In the 1970s, people become increasingly aware of ecological concerns. Attention focuses on forest dieback and protecting the Alpine environment. The NRLA is one of the beneficiaries.

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25 February 1977

The overall transport strategy

The coordination of transport policy, with funding from the Confederation, forms an important basis for the NRLA.

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20 December 1979

Gotthard or Splügen?

A tunnel through the Gotthard would be more profitable, but the Splügen would bring more benefits to the regional economy, the experts conclude.

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1985

The Gotthard myth

The Gotthard enjoys mythical status in Switzerland. It symbolises Switzerland’s defensive potential, but also its transit function.

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Phase 3
1983 - 1992

Planning and referendum

Politicians take up the NRLA plans once again in the 1980s. Public awareness of environmental issues is rising as a result of forest dieback. The plan...

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1985

A dissertation revives a railway

Rarely has an academic dissertation caused such a political stir. Hans-Jörg Bertschi’s work lends new momentum to the NRLA.

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1987

Rail 2000

For all the talk of the NRLA, Rail 2000 is also a big part of the story. It encouraged the drive towards a denser rail network and an expanded infrastructure.

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12 July 1988

Five options

Lötschberg-Simplon, Gotthard, Ypsilon or one of two Splügen options? The Federal Council decides to pursue the Gotthard and Lötschberg-Simplon options.

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1988

«Rail with road»

In an influential report, Infras recommends an internationally coordinated approach, and shifting road traffic onto the railways.

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1989

Order, build, operate

For the NRLA’s construction, the Confederation separates infrastructure from operations. The new project management system is a success.

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2 March 1989

Cross-border solutions

A European transport conference in Frankfurt in 1989 gives its backing to rail transport. Adolf Ogi is there representing Switzerland.

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29 November 1989

No link for Eastern Switzerland

A rail line through the eastern Alps is eastern Switzerland’s dream. While those hopes come to nought, the region is included in the network option.

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1991

The problem with slots

Planning rail traffic is a complex business: trains travelling on the same tracks can only overtake at a small number of places. The principal planning unit is known as a slot.

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4 October 1991

Parliament backs the NRLA

Parliament’s backing for the construction of the NRLA is based on regional, environmental and European policy arguments.

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2 May 1992

Agreement with Europe

Even before the Swiss people vote on the NRLA, politicians are discussing the project in their negotiations with the EEC.

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1992

Approval from western Switzerland

The main beneficiaries of the base tunnels through the Gotthard and Lötschberg are Zurich, Bern, Valais and Ticino. But the French-speaking cantons of western Switzerland also gain from the NRLA.

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27 September 1992

Yes to the NRLA

Swiss voters approve the NRLA proposal by a clear majority, paving the way for construction of the new Gotthard, Ceneri and Lötschberg tunnels.

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6 December 1992

No to the EEA

Transport policy negotiations with Europe falter when Switzerland votes narrowly against joining the European Economic Area.

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Phase 4
1992 - 2020

Planning and realisation

Planning proceeds at full speed from 1992. Exploratory boring starts in the mountains. Construction officially begins in 1999, with miners and boring...

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1993

Tunnel vision

The NRLA is architecture. A minimalist formal language pervades its every construction, even down to the barely visible tunnels.

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2 February 1993

The NRLA and Europe

From the outset, business representatives and politicians view the NRLA as a project that will advance Switzerland’s integration into Europe.

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21 April 1993

Pressure from the environmental movement

The «construction project of the century» is the subject of heated debate, with politicians, administrators and environmental organisations grappling to find common solutions.

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4 October 1993

Work begins

The NRLA is far more than just the Gotthard Base Tunnel, but the first exploratory boring for the NRLA project takes place at the Gotthard.

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13 December 1993

Spatial planning

Transport routes change the landscape. The routing of the NRLA lines thus becomes a matter of spatial planning.

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20 February 1994

Yes to the Alps Initiative

The unexpected popular vote in favour of the Alps Initiative accelerates development of the NRLA.

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20 February 1995

Green light for the network option

The Federal Council confirms the network option for the NRLA, clearing the way for construction of the Gotthard-Ceneri and Lötschberg axes.

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29 May 1995

Transport policy as financial policy

Federal Councillor Otto Stich is convinced that the NRLA will cost more than the estimated 14 billion Swiss francs.

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13 September 1995

Links to other countries

The success of the NRLA hinges on countries other than Switzerland. The amount of freight carried by rail will only increase if the Rotterdam-Genoa axis is modernised.

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1996

Rotterdam–Genoa

Expansion of the Rotterdam–Genoa freight axis makes slow progress. Italy lags behind on sea-port links.

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18 April 1996

Uri’s concerns

The canton of Uri is particularly affected by construction of the Gotthard axis. It wants the approach route to the rail tunnel to run underground. Negotiations with the Confederation run far from smoothly.

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29 November 1998

Yes to public transport funding

Funding for the NRLA is secured: over 30 billion francs are to be spent modernising Switzerland’s rail infrastructure.

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18 December 1998

Supervision

Responsibility for ensuring that the large-scale project proceeds efficiently and in accordance with the law lies with parliament’s supervisory delegation.

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1 January 1999

The SBB becomes a limited company

Rail Reform 1 aims at a gradual liberalisation of rail transport.

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14 June 1999

Adjustments go unnoticed

Almost unnoticed by the public at large, the Federal Council brings forward the previously postponed construction of the twin-track Zurich-Thalwil tunnel.

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5 July 1999

Construction begins

Although work actually began earlier, the first blasting at the Lötschberg is regarded as the official start of NRLA construction.

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8 October 1999

The big shift

With the expansion of the NRLA, goods traffic through the Alps is progressively transferred from road to rail, though more slowly than planned.

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21 May 2000

The end of the 28-tonne limit

For the first time, goods vehicles weighing forty tonnes are permitted to travel on Swiss roads. In return, the EU accepts the heavy vehicle fee.

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27 November 2000

Geology and surveying

Tunnel construction depends on scientific knowledge. Geology helps to find ways through the rock.

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17 December 2003

Yes to the Ceneri Base Tunnel

Funding for the Ceneri tunnel is controversial. Federal Councillor Moritz Leuenberger argues strongly in its favour.

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16 April 2004

The costs

Funding for the project is hotly debated. The main issue is rising costs.

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2005

Control in the tunnel

A new control system transmits movement commands via a digital radio network to a screen in the driver’s cab.

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2 June 2006

Construction of the Ceneri tunnel

The Ceneri Base Tunnel is the third major project forming part of the NRLA. Although somewhat overshadowed by the Gotthard and Lötschberg tunnels, it will usher in a new era for regional transport in Ticino.

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6 September 2006

Breakthrough in the Gotthard

The Gotthard Base Tunnel is the centrepiece of the NRLA. The first breakthrough by a boring machine takes place in the east bore.

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9 December 2007

The Lötschberg enters operation

With the opening of the Lötschberg Base Tunnel, a first section of the NRLA becomes operational.

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15 October 2008

Traversing the Piora Basin

The Piora Basin, with its sugar-grain rock, threatens to endanger construction of the Gotthard Base Tunnel.

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20 March 2009

The 5.4-billion stage

How much will the NRLA cost? Initial estimates quote a figure of 12 billion francs. In 2009 Parliament approves an additional and decisive sum of 5.4 billion.

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2011

Using the tunnels to get away

The vast majority of passengers taking the train for their journey through the Alps are travelling not for business but for pleasure.

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16 May 2012

No to the Porta Alpina

It is a popular vision: the Porta Alpina to connect Sedrun and the Surselva via a lift to the Gotthard Base Tunnel.

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23 August 2013

A million visitors

During construction of the Gotthard and Lötschberg Base Tunnels, the general public have an opportunity to view the inside of the mountain. Huge numbers do so.

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1 June 2014

The four-metre corridor

In order to transport the heavier loads, not only the tunnels but also other parts of the rail infrastructure need to be adapted.

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31 October 2014

Rock meets concrete

The Gotthard Base Tunnel is a high-tech product – and, like every tunnel, the result of much hard graft: by labourers, masons and concrete layers.

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1 October 2015

Tests on the Gotthard

There is a lot of technology in the new Gotthard line. Extensive tests are carried out to ensure it works properly.

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2016

Tunnels of the world

Whose tunnel is the longest? Tunnel construction is a never-ending competition for the world record.

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1 June 2016

High-profile guests at the opening ceremony

No expense is spared at the Gotthard Base Tunnel inauguration ceremony in 2016. Merkel, Hollande and Renzi are in attendance, but not the heads of the EU.

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11 December 2016

Costs and benefits

The NRLA has cost a lot of money. Time will tell how great the economic benefits are.

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2017

43,152 trains

In the opening months, traffic in the new Gotthard Base Tunnel occasionally grinds to a halt. The SBB lay on extra trains to cope.

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1 January 2017

Mind the doors

The escape doors installed in the Gotthard tunnel are the best there is. They owe their construction to the NRLA. One major innovation led to multiple minor innovations.

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2017

The train feels the strain

The Lötschberg Base Tunnel becomes a victim of its own success. Planning for an expansion is already under way.

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12 August 2017

A vulnerable transport system

When the track subsides at Rastatt in summer 2017, traffic grinds to a halt. The collapse highlights the fragility of Europe’s rail system.

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2018

A language in themselves

Every wagon, coach and locomotive bears an assortment of cryptic symbols, letters and numbers without which the railway could not operate.

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2020

Ceneri, the third base tunnel

The NRLA is more than its three tunnels, but they are convenient media labels for the project stages. Completion of the Ceneri Base Tunnel in 2020 marks the end of the NRLA.

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2021

Whither the mountain routes?

Not everyone is a winner from the NRLA. The future of the world-famous Gotthard mountain route through the Urseren Valley and the Leventina is still undecided.

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