Tweet The story a week or so ago about the completion of the Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland was a triumph of engineering; but also a triumph of vision and foresight. It dramatically highlights the difference in attitude towards rail transport between the UK and the rest of Europe. Whilst we wait to hear whether a line built over a century and a half ago will be electrified, the rest of Europe presses ahead with an ambitious, long term programme to develop a network of new high speed lines.
For us in Wales, electrification is in doubt – and high speed isn’t even a line on a map yet. There are plans for a high speed link to the north of England, and eventually on to Scotland, but where is the comprehensive vision for a rail network of the future? It requires the sort of long term thinking of which UK governments – of any party – seem to be completely incapable.
The 35 mile long Swiss tunnel was started in 1996, they’ve been drilling for 14 years – and it’ll be another 7 before the first trains will run. That’s serious long term visionary thinking about the right approach to transportation. And it isn’t the only such project – they started another, shorter (a mere 21 miles!) tunnel at the same time on a parallel route further west. But the Swiss vision isn’t just about high speed passenger transport – the line will also handle significant amounts of freight.
It will help with the implementation of the Traffic Transfer Act passed in 1999, which aims to ensure that most freight passing through Switzerland from Germany to Italy will go by rail rather than road. Another piece of visionary thinking, seeing rail as a real alternative to more road building, and removing the most damaging traffic from their roads.
It’s an idea with some resonance – imagine if all the freight from Ireland which goes from Pembrokeshire right across Wales (and across England as well, often, en route to the ferry ports) were mandated to go by rail instead of road. A few trains per day would remove a significant amount of heavy traffic from the roads, quite apart from the environmental benefits.
Of course it’s not an entirely fair comparison. Switzerland is far more ‘central’ to Europe, purely by dint of geography; and traffic flows are therefore much higher. Switzerland is also about twice the size of Wales, and their population about two and a half times ours; although if we think the terrain in Wales is difficult for construction, just take a look at Switzerland.
But the really key difference is about clear government direction and political will, and the sort of long term vision and investment which is needed to improve the rail infrastructure. I won’t hold my breath, then.
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