Does Switzerland’s transportation future lie underground?

Will tunnels be the saviours of transport policy? Is the conquest of the subterranean realm part of a sustainable and networked mobility vision? Safe for goods – but not necessarily for people and passenger transport: that’s the current state of affairs.

 

10.09.2020

  • Future

In city centres in Switzerland you can hardly move during rush hour any more. And even on our national roads. traffic volumes continue to grow unabated – as recently reported by the Federal Roads Office FEDRO: an increase of 100 million vehicle kilometres was recorded from 2018 to 2019 – out of a current total of 27.8 billion vehicle kilometres. At the same time, experts estimate that the volume of freight traffic in Switzerland will increase by 37% by 2040 as compared to 2010. So the question arises: does the solution lie down in the depths, where space is theoretically unlimited?

 

Freight by metro from Geneva to St. Gallen

“Cargo Sous Terrain (CST) is one of the most innovative transport projects currently in progress,” writes David Vonplon on nzz.ch. “Over the next 25 years, an underground freight transport system is to be built right across Switzerland which will significantly relieve the burden on motorways and railways. Self-driving vehicles will transport pallets and containers from the logistics centres to the cities – CO2-free and powered 100% by renewable energies. The driving force behind the 33-billion-franc project is a private consortium including powerful companies such as Coop, Migros, Swisscom, Post, SBB, Mobiliar and Panalpina. Political support for the freight metro is also in place: the Federal Council decided to create the legal basis for CST in January 2020. The project schedule is ambitious: the first section from Zurich to Härkingen is due to go into operation in ten years’ time. There is a project based on a similar idea in Germany, incidentally: namely CargoCap – the “freight shoot”.

The Cargo Sous Terrain vehicle is expected to be in use in a few years.
« Tunnels are built to last at least a hundred years. So the political decisions have to be taken now. »

“Passenger traffic not yet on the agenda”

While there are visions, funding and a legislative basis in the freight sector, the expansion of underground passenger transport is “not yet on the agenda at all”, according to Dr. Tobias Arnold, Head of Transport and Space at the Lucerne-based consulting firm Interface. “Moving goods underground is much easier and is far more widely accepted than doing the same thing with people,” says the transport specialist. Individual underground passenger transport is “an entirely different thing” from underground trains as part of the public transport system, he adds. Quite apart from the technical and financial aspects, the fundamental point is that people simply don't want to spend extended periods of time travelling in the dark.

« People don’t want to travel in the dark. »
Dr. Tobias Arnold, Head of Transport and Space at the Lucerne-based consulting firm Interface

Questionable sustainability

“If you include the economic dimension when looking at it from the point of view of sustainability, underground passenger transport doesn't come off particularly well,” says Prof. Ueli Häfeli, transportation scientist at Interface. Tunnel construction consumes enormous sums of money and harnessing the underground domain involves unpredictable risk factors such as penetration of new sediment layers and water retention, especially in inhabited areas. In addition, there is the legally unresolved question of where the underground boundary runs between private and public property. “I do see underground potential in terms of stationary traffic though,” says Häfeli. “Pedestrian and bicycle traffic above ground, parking spaces below ground”.

Underground parking and roofed over motorways

Parking areas take up a lot of space and have to be viewed as separate areas within the urban environment. The idea of increasingly moving them under the ground is not new but still holds massive potential for expansion. The city of Zurich is a pioneer in the area of regulation: its “historic” inner-city parking compromise of 1996 means that any removal of an above-ground car park has to be compensated for underground. In 2019, this compromise was made even more rigorous by the softening of the compensation requirement: now it is to be possible to eliminate above-ground parking spaces to up to 10% below the 1990 level without requiring compensation. Another method of expanding green spaces and recreational areas is the creation of large, accessible roof areas by enclosing motorways: this is currently being called for by the city of Kriens, for example, as part of the Lucerne motorway bypass.

Seamless and close by

Whatever parts of the traffic flow are to be moved underground in the future: it is imperative that they should be linked as seamlessly as possible to the traffic infrastructure on the surface. “It would also be nice if ‘short distances’ could be established as part of the future vision for transport. A new concept of the neighbourhood environment if you like – where we no longer have to walk or drive far to satisfy our needs,” concludes traffic specialist Häfeli.

 

It will be interesting to see how things develop.

Sources: including cst.ch (Cargo Sous Terrain), energieschweiz.ch/komo

 

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