Lötschberg Base Tunnel Upgrade Enters Next Stage

The planning for the Lötschberg Base Tunnel, the first of the base tunnels on the New Railway Link through the Alps (NRLA) to open, has entered the next stage.

Starting on 17 August 2020, the details of the construction project to upgrade the track through the Lötschberg Base Tunnel so that more of it will be double track will become the subject of a public consultation. BLS is also still moving forward with its plan to deliver a full upgrade to two tunnel bores.

It is the will of the Swiss parliament that the tracks in the 35km Lötschberg Base Tunnel are upgraded over a 14km stretch, between Ferden and Mitholz. Consequently, 28km of the 35km would be double track, leaving 7km of single track remaining.

These plans will be the focus of the public consultation that starts on Monday, 17 August. It is the next step in the planning approval process, which the Federal Office of Transport (BAV) is overseeing.

In late 2020 BLS will be able to make its plans for the full upgrade to two tunnel bores available and they will then be similarly mature to the partial upgrade plans.

Lötschberg Base Tunnel
The Lötschberg Base Tunnel is the first of the base tunnels on the NRLA that opened

Partial or Full Upgrade to Double Track?

The reason the full upgrade is being reviewed once more is because of an eight-month closure that would be necessitated to connect the new tunnel section to the existing single-track section at Mitholz. Major construction works would have to be performed on the existing bore. Therefore the Swiss parliament has asked the Federal Council to look once more at the full upgrade of the tunnel, which would not require a long period of full closure. The Federal Council will present its conclusions to the parliament as part of its interim report on STEP ES 2035 – a strategic expansion programme to extend the Swiss rail network and increase services.

It will be on the basis of the results presented that the parliament will decide by early 2023 whether to move ahead with the previously approved partial upgrade or whether to go for a full upgrade instead. It is this deliberation that is causing BLS to hold back on issuing its invitation to tender for the primary construction work on the partial upgrade. Instead, starting in 2022, BLS will conduct some preparatory work that are necessary for both upgrade plans.

Lötschberg Mountain Line Capacity

Should the decision be reached that the partial upgrade is sufficient, then construction work is set to begin in 2025 and continue until late 2031. The necessary eight-month closure would take place towards the end of the construction period. This would mean long-distance trains would use the mountain line instead. Freight trains have the option of using the mountain line or being diverted on to the Gotthard axis. The Car Transport service and RegioExpress trains running through the Lötschberg Summit Tunnel will be unaffected. If a full upgrade is chosen, the necessary project changes will undergo public consultation in mid-2023. Construction work would then last from 2026 to 2033.

BLS is of the view that a full upgrade is the best option for the reason that it doesn’t involve the full closure of the Base Tunnel. It would also provide greater flexibility in timetable planning and greater service stability on the New Railway Link through the Alps.

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