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High-speed rail connections divide parliament

Most of Switzerland's cantons want high-speed connections with the rest of Europe Keystone

Switzerland’s main political parties are split over whether to connect the east and the west of the country to the European high-speed rail network.

This content was published on December 12, 2004 - 16:42

With budget cuts threatening the links, the House of Representatives is set to tackle the thorny issue on Thursday.

A fairly dense high-speed railway network should cover most of Europe by 2020.

Switzerland, with its central position on the continent has always said it wanted to be connected.

But to benefit, the Swiss must upgrade lines in eastern and western Switzerland to which feeder lines must also be added.

In 1998 a large majority of Swiss voted in favour of a SFr1.2 billion ($1.03 billion) credit for the high-speed connections. Since the vote, inflation has pushed the cost of linking up with the rest of Europe to roughly SFr1.3 billion.

Spending cuts

As part of its cost-cutting drive, the government has suggested spreading out the investment.

It wants to spend SFr665 million in a first stage to cover the funding needs of the seven most urgent projects.

But the house’s finance committee turned down the government's proposal in August, setting the credit at SFr990 million.

Another committee, responsible for transport, has suggested sticking with SFr1.3 billion programme.

Eighteen cantons and the Public Transport Association support this option. They all believe that reducing the original credit would be undemocratic.

Cantons from eastern Switzerland are particularly concerned that they will suffer most from any delay in linking up with the European network.

They have also complained that related projects are more likely to benefit the western part of the country.

“Regional interests are playing an important role in this debate,” admitted Otto Laubacher, the transport committee’s president.

Divided parliament

Laubacher, a member of the rightwing People’s Party, told swissinfo that party politics didn’t really come into consideration this time.

“Members of parliament found common ground because 18 cantons reacted to the proposed cuts.”

The debate is also causing splits within the ranks. Laubacher wants to stick with the government proposal, while members of his own party are against it.

“The truth is that some parliamentarians who live near the planned high-speed links carry some weight within the house,” suggested Green committee member Pia Hollenstein.

The Swiss Federal Railways has refused to comment on the ongoing debate, preferring to wait for the end of the parliamentary process.

But, according to Laubacher, the federal railways are not “particularly enthusiastic” about the delayed timetable.

The high-speed connections have been criticised by no less than the director of the Federal Transport Office, Max Friedli.

“We don’t want to build cathedrals where nobody lives,” he told the “Tages-Anzeiger” newspaper.

No need

Laubacher tends to agree with Friedli, saying that some parts of the programme are financially unsound.

“We only need two high-speed connections with the European network in western Switzerland: one in Geneva and the other in Basel,” he told swissinfo.

“The rest of the country’s lines are sufficient to connect us with abroad.”

Hollenstein admits Friedli may have a point, especially if he has other projects to consider.

But she added that he would have to live with the high-speed programme. “You can’t go against what voters have decided,” she said.

Hollenstein believes that nobody really opposes the European link-up, since it is important for the country, especially for the economy.

“And when you make the connections, you also need the corresponding feeder lines,” she added.

Laubacher reckons there will be some resistance to the SFr1.3 billion credit, but he expects the house to accept it.

“When 18 cantons start pouring on the pressure, you know that parliament is going to toe the line,” he said.

swissinfo, Christian Raaflaub

Key facts

The government wants to restrict the budget for high-speed rail connections to SFr665 million.
The House of Representative’s transport committee wants to keep the original SFr1.3 billion credit.
18 cantons have backed the committee’s decision.

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In brief

Most of Europe should be connected by a high-speed rail network by 2020.

While the Swiss agree that they must be part of this network, the question of how much should be spent on this project and where connections should be made is splitting the country’s main political parties.

The government proposal to cut the planned budget has been modified upwards by two parliamentary committees.

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