Thinking big, Swiss style
When it comes to mega-construction projects they don’t come any bigger than the Gotthard Base Tunnel. Superlatives run out in describing the longest, deepest and one of the costliest rail tunnels ever built, which opened on June 1st.
It took 17 years to build but the tunnel is just one part of a bigger plan to transfer international lorry transit traffic through Switzerland onto rail. Under the Alp Transit project, some 20 other tunnels on the Gotthard route will be enlarged or duplicated to take 4m high lorries on rail wagons by 2020.
The route is the main North-South rail corridor linking Germany, Switzerland and Italy.
The 34.6 km (21.5 mile) Lötschberg Base Tunnel is also part of the grand scheme and was (partially) completed in 2007. Another base tunnel on the Gotthard, the 15.4 km (9.6mile) Ceneri, is under construction and will be finished in 2020.
The Alp Transit scheme was costed at US$13bn in 2005. It has been endorsed by the Swiss electorate (though referenda) on two occasions, and it is being funded mainly through taxes on long distance lorry traffic and petrol duties switched from road building.
The transport situation in the UK is very different from that in Switzerland, of course. Our mountains are molehills compared to the Alps, but that is only the obvious difference. The main difference is that big infrastructure projects like this one demonstrate what can be achieved through properly-funded, long term planning that enjoys public support.
But none of these factors apply in the UK currently.
Swiss planning is done on a time scale and on a grand scale that is simply unimaginable over here.
Thinking big is a great idea if the public supports it and is prepared to foot the bill, but otherwise it could lead to disaster. What outcome would a public vote on HS2 produce, for instance?
One shudders to think.