Dreaming of travelling south? This dream often turns into a nightmare around Easter with the long line of traffic queuing to use the Gotthard road tunnel. Before the road tunnel opened in 1980, SBB was responsible for managing vehicles travelling between northern and southern Switzerland.
Who would have thought it? Before 1980, road traffic heading south was transported on trains via the Gotthard as well as the Simplon tunnels. The rail tunnels crossing the Alps were in especially high demand when the pass roads were blocked with snow, which was often the case at Easter. Lots of people from the north travelled south for Easter in particular to escape the long winter, which meant trains at that time not only had to cope with an increased number of passengers but also a higher volume of transport in general.
The mass motorisation of the 1950s was reflected in the increase in the number of cars being transported via the Gotthard tunnel: as many as 10,015 vehicles were being transported before the Second World War. The car-carrying service completely broke down during the war but in 1946, there were 10,095 vehicles again and five times as many just six years later with 50,454 vehicles being transported.
Despite this rapid increase, in 1952 the SBB newsletter reported that SBB was “capable of dealing with even the busiest traffic in a satisfactory manner” and until then, the increased number of cars and motorbikes had been transported the same way as before the war. However, SBB was proven wrong that same year. The long queuing times during the unexpected “great Easter rush of 1952” received harsh criticism in the press. This led to the introduction of a new system in 1953 to tackle the “traffic chaos”. One obvious problem was the long loading times. In order to shorten the loading times, drivers now had to stay in their vehicles and no longer travelled in the adjoining passenger coaches.
The numbers of vehicles being transported continued to rise (surpassing the 100,000 mark in 1955 and the 200,000 mark in 1960), calling for various new operational and structural modifications to be made. Airolo and later Göschenen were given new loading ramps with new ticket systems. Some vehicles were even being loaded in Erstfeld to ease the pressure and the rolling stock was also upgraded with the addition of new flat wagons.
The SBB Management Board were obviously happy with the changes, so much so that they proudly showed off the new loading ramp operation to foreign guests on Maundy Thursday in 1960.
However, they were not able to rest on their laurels for long: the number of vehicles being transported through the Gotthard tunnel went up to over 550,000 by 1967. The San Bernardino road tunnel was opened in the same year, which helped to reduce some of the traffic going through the Gotthard tunnel. In 1979, however, over 400,000 cars and coaches were still transported by the car-carrying service.
When the road tunnel was opened on 5 September of that year, the SBB car-carrying service through the Gotthard tunnel was shut down. Since then, any reports of congestion in the Gotthard region have only ever caused an increase in the number of people on SBB passenger trains.
You can find more fascinating insights into the history of Swiss railways in the SBB Historic blog (in German).