In a few months' time, Switzerland will inaugurate the centrepiece of the massive “Rail 2000” railway project.
With an upgraded timetable to be introduced in December, the journey time between Bern and Zurich will be reduced from 69 minutes to just under one hour.
On Wednesday, the first train to test the new tracks between Mattstetten and Rothrist with passengers on board hit 160 kilometres per hour. Earlier tests saw speeds climb as high as 240 kilometres per hour.
Around 1,900 test runs will be completed by the time the line is opened, when the first regularly scheduled passenger train travels from Bern to Zurich on December 12.
For Hans-Jürg Spillmann, who oversees track infrastructure for the Swiss Federal Railways, the change of line will be quite an event.
“The opening of the new track is really something,” he told swissinfo. “ We haven’t opened a new line for quite some time.”
He compares the opening of the new track, the centrepiece of the Rail 2000 project, with the inauguration of the Simplon tunnel from Switzerland to Italy 100 years ago.
“Switzerland will become even smaller,” he added, “especially between the western and the eastern parts of the country.”
The president of the Swiss parliament, Max Binder, who sat in the locomotive for the trip, said he was convinced the financial effort was worth it.
“I’m sure that this investment is a major step for the development of public transport in the future,” he said.
The project has cost SFr4.5 billion ($3.66 billion) to date, with another SFr1.2 billion still to be spent. But it should be completed on schedule and at a cost well below the budgeted SFr7.4 billion.
But the planned top speed of 200 kilometres per hour on the new track will not be introduced straight away. The Federal Railways blame the delay on the new European security system, ETCS.
“We are the first to introduce this system,” explained Spillmann. “We realise that its development hasn’t reached the point where we can use it from December onwards.”
Maximum speeds won’t be reached on the new Bern-Zurich stretch before 2006. “We need the ETCS to reach 200 kilometres per hour on our busy network,” added Spillmann.
The new track is part of the first phase of the Rail 2000 project. The second phase, although approved, has been put on hold because of federal spending cuts.
If completed, Rail 2000 will be a dense network with interconnections all over Switzerland. According to Spillmann, it would not be unlike a metropolitan rail network.
Binder, whose rightwing People’s Party is in favour of more spending cuts, says he would prefer the project to be completed.
“The system needs to be complete to work properly,” he told swissinfo. “If there are holes in it, what remains doesn’t function with 100 per cent efficiency.”
Decisions on the second phase of Rail 2000 should be taken in 2007 or 2008.
swissinfo, Christian Raaflaub in Mattstetten
The new section of track between Zurich and Bern is 45 kilometres long.
Built between Mattstetten, north of Bern, and Rothrist, south of Olten, its use should cut 15 minutes off the trip beween the capital and Zurich, putting the two cities less than an hour away from each other.
The current line is over 100 years old.
After the Rail 2000 concept was approved in 1987, the Swiss repeatedly voted in favour of other government bills on transport, all of which aimed at a shift of traffic from road to rail.
Apart from the construction of two new Alpine base tunnels at the Gotthard and Lötschberg respectively, the package includes connection to the European high-speed network, noise reduction measures, and the Rail 2000 concept.