Futuristic Underground Freight Project Gets One Step Closer to Reality

A computer image of the planned underground logistics network. Underground cargo

Goods that are normally transported by truck on busy Swiss roads are set to travel underground on driverless vehicles after an ambitious freight project got a first legislative green light.

This content was published on June 4, 2021 – 09:36

The Underground Cargo (CST) sounds like science fiction: a network of 500 kilometers of tunnels to transport freight between Switzerland’s busiest cities.

But after years of planning, momentum is building. On Tuesday, the Swiss Senate gave the green light to the bill that would oversee the futuristic company. The law is now going to the House of Representatives for consideration.

The Federal Law on Underground Freight TransportExternal link represents a crucial step, according to CST, a Swiss private sector initiative that proposed the legislation.

“The law is the basis for the realization of the whole project,” Peter Sutterlüti, chairman of the CST board, told Swiss public television SRF.

“The project needs investment security. It needs to be enshrined in law so we can start drilling underground according to federal procedures. »

If granted final parliamentary approval, CST planners will be able to follow a single construction and planning process and avoid having to negotiate access and construction issues with each canton and commune along the route. .

How it works?

Cargo sous terrain AG, based in Olten, first presented its vision of connecting production and logistics sites to Swiss urban centers ten years ago.

The idea is to automatically load pallets or modified refrigerated containers of goods onto driverless electric vehicles at designated “hubs”. The containers are then transferred underground on elevators and on tracks. The autonomous vehicles carrying the cargo then travel at a constant speed of 30 kilometers per hour to their destination, where the goods are picked up and distributed locally.

The completed network should be ready around 2045 for a total cost of 30 to 35 billion francs.

Organizers say the underground network will significantly improve transport infrastructure in Switzerland and provide a sustainable and environmentally friendly solution.

Too expensive?

But critics question the price and the necessity of the project.

“It’s way too expensive,” said Nils Planzer, CEO and president of Planzer Transport, one of Switzerland’s leading logistics companies.

He wonders about the future profitability of new underground infrastructures in the highly competitive logistics market where prices are low.

“Today we have an existing infrastructure which I believe should first be used to its full extent,” he told SRF.

SRF / Kai Reusser

The bold project comes with a lot of uncertainty. During its consultation phase, concerns were raised about the multiplication of the final budget and the public being asked to pay the bills.

This week, the senators of Bern voted unanimously for the project. But there were questions about shareholders, financing and landowner compensation.

“It is essential that the majority of shareholders remain in Swiss hands. It is imperative that strategic infrastructure is protected from foreign takeovers,” said Hansjörg Knecht of the SVP.

He insisted that competition in the freight sector must remain fair and that the project was financed exclusively by the private sector.

Knecht said, “No state funds may be used, not even through the back door…the involvement of state-owned and state-affiliated companies must be carefully considered. If the project fails, the State, as the owner of these companies, must not end up being asked to pay.

Building plans

In a pilot phase, CST wants to build a section of tunnel between Härkingen, an industrial area with warehousing and distribution facilities, and Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city. Stretching over 67 kilometers, this tunnel would run from 20 to 100 meters underground, would have around ten transhipment hubs and would cost around 3.4 billion francs (3.7 billion dollars) according to CST estimates. It should be operational by 2031.

In a second phase, if all goes as planned, the network will be extended on the east-west axis, from Saint-Gall to Geneva, connecting the cities of Basel, Bern, Lucerne, Lausanne and Thun and extending over 500 kilometers.

Around CHF 100 million has already been secured for the planning phase leading up to the start of construction work in 2026. Development of the project is progressing while the team awaits a final decision on the federal law in parliament. Nine people work in Olten on detailed route management and are negotiating with potential hub locations.

Who is behind the project?

The project is supported by several heavyweights of the Swiss economic world. Investors include Credit Suisse, Swiss Cargo Railways, Zurich Airport, Swisscom, Swiss Post, insurance companies Helvetia and Mobiliar, Holcim, Implenia and supermarket chains Coop and Migros.

The Federal Council (Swiss executive) says it will facilitate “realistic” private enterprise and the new law will help them to do so. But the government will not participate in its financing. He also insists that most shareholders must be Swiss during the life of the project, as there had already been interest from Chinese investors.

Many senators spoke positively about the underground freight program this week.

“It is rare that we discuss such innovative projects in parliament. Visionary ideas tend to be suppressed in this house,” said Stefan Engler of the Center Party.

Radical centre-right parliamentarian Hans Wicki said the project came at the right time.

“Freight transport will grow strongly, due to an increase in the Swiss population and a growing economy,” he told the Senate on Tuesday.

The Swiss Federal Roads Office estimates that freight transport in Switzerland will increase by 40% between 2010 and 2030, which will have an impact on already congested roads, noise and pollution in this densely populated country.

Complies with JTI standards

Complies with JTI standards

Find out more: SWI swissinfo.ch certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

Bonny J. Streater