Swiss referendum will impact on north-south transit traffic

February 02, 2016

On 28 February, the Swiss go to the polls in a referendum that could have major implications for north-south goods transport in Europe. The vote itself is whether to build a second road tunnel through the Gotthard Alpine mountain between the towns of Göschenen and Airolo, but T&E’s two Swiss members are making the case that the issue is much bigger than that.

Despite not being a member of the EU, Switzerland has been at the centre of EU road transport policy for three decades because of its strategic position in Europe. If hauliers want to get their goods from one side of the Alps to the other, Switzerland is an obvious route, so the referendum in February 1994 to enshrine into the Swiss constitution an Alpine Protection Article was of significance for Europe. This article bans the expansion of road transport infrastructure through the Alps, as part of attempts to make freight go by rail, not road.

To comply with the Alpine Protection Article, the reasoning behind the second Gotthard road tunnel, which will make the current one-lane-each-way tunnel into a two-lanes-each-way crossing, is based on the need for the existing tunnel to be renovated. The Swiss transport minister Doris Leuthard says the reason for the new tunnel is not to increase capacity but to create enough capacity for the renovation to take place without having to close the crossing, and that only one lane per tunnel will be kept open after renovation.

Environmental groups say this is ludicrous thinking, as the new tunnel would make the Gotthard the shortest four-lane north-south corridor in Europe – attracting new traffic. More than 50 organisations have teamed up to form a united campaign ‘No to a second Gotthard tunnel’, which includes T&E’s two Swiss member organisations, the VCS/ATE and Alpine Initiative. With the potential of the new tunnel to increase lorry movements from the current one million a year to two million, the campaign has developed the slogan ‘Transit hell’.

In a special edition of its magazine Echo the Alpine Initiative said: ‘The Gotthard decision will have implications in Basel, Schaffhausen and Chiasso, in fact much further than that – the area affected takes in Rotterdam, Paris, Geneva and Munich.’

Other arguments against the second tunnel are that it will undermine Swiss efforts to shift transit traffic from road to rail, which will come to fruition later this year. The Swiss have built a new rail tunnel through the Gotthard at a cost of 24 billion francs (€21.5 billion); it will be the longest railway tunnel in the world. Once this is opened in the summer, Swiss railways (SBB/CFF) expects its current total of around 9,000 passengers per day travelling through the Gotthard to double by 2025. But if the second road tunnel is built, the SBB/CFF’s income is likely to fall as more people and goods travel by car and lorry.

Campaign material from the VCS/ATE says the referendum question is dubiously phrased. It asks ‘Do you want the proposed changes to the federal law on road transit traffic through the Alpine region (renovation of the Gotthard road tunnel) to be adopted?’ Campaigners say the renovation will happen anyway, so the question is a play on words to trick voters to believe the referendum is a yes/no on the renovation programme.

An opinion poll for the Swiss radio and television corporation in mid-January suggested the campaign for a second Gotthard road tunnel was well ahead, with 64% reported to be supporting it, just 29% against, and 7% undecided. Campaigners against the referendum say they are being vastly outspent by supporters, who are investing about 6 million francs in an advertising campaign. Opponents say they can hardly afford a third of this sum.