Green light for Neuchâtel – La Chaux de Fonds direct rail link

A direct railway link that has been talked about for over a quarter of a century has finally received the green light from the Federal Chambers of Switzerland. Meanwhile, the estimated costs have increased fourfold.

rail link

The direct railway link between Neuchâtel and La Chaux de Fonds in Switzerland will become a reality in the years to come, as, at the end of June, the Federal Chambers finally approved the project.

Almost CHF billion (about EUR 1.8 billion) will be invested by the Swiss Confederation over the next 15 years in the Canton of Neuchâtel. On the occasion of the final vote, the National Council and the member states of the confederation approved two files integrating the projects in Neuchâtel, i.e. the commitment loan for national roads and the development of the railway infrastructure for the 2035 horizon.

The most anticipated project is the direct line, called TransRUN (acronym for Transport entre Régions Urbaines Neuchâteloises). It provides for the construction of two tunnels, each with a simple railway, with a gauge that would allow the traffic of double decker trains, under Vue des Alpes (5,7 km) and under Chaumont Mountain (6,2 km) at Cernier, on the overground section (1.3 km).

The distance between Neuchâtel and La Chaux-de-Fonds will be reduced from 29.5 to 16.7 kilometres and, by  increasing the traffic speed, the travel time between the two cities will be reduced by half.

A history of 162 years

The railway between Neuchâtel and La Chaux-de-Fonds has a history of 162 years. In July 1857, the company JuraIndustriel opened the line for traffic.

Two years later, in November, the Mont-Sagne tunnel was opened, allowing the connection between La Chaux-de-Fonds and Convers, and the line between Les Hauts-Geneveys and Neuchâtel, along with the clogged train station in Chambrelien were inaugurated.

In July 1860, the Loges tunnel between Les HautsGeneveys and Les Convers was opened, linking Neuchâtel and La Chaux-de-Fonds. In 1913 CFF took over the railway, which until then was owned by a private company, and in 1931 the line was electrified.

The idea of a direct link between the two cities emerges for the first time in 1993. The project of a metro line to directly connect La Chaux-de-Fonds and Neuchâtel, with an intermediate stop at Fontaines, was presented. But in 2002 the metro line project was buried by the State Council, which considers it too expensive and incompatible with the railway network.

Then, two years later, the Government presented its first TransRUN project, with a direct line between Neuchâtel and La Chaux-de-Fonds, via Cernier, the construction of which was estimated at CHF 550 million. In December 2009, the State Council signed a partnership with CFF to find a method for funding the TransRUN project, whose cost already jumped to EUR 850 million.

The enthusiasm was shattered in September 2012 when the project was dropped after 50.29% of the canton population voted against the project. In December 2015, a half-hour rhythm is introduced between Neuchâtel et La Chaux-de-Fonds and the trains no longer stop at Chambrelien, Geneveys-sur-Coffrance and Hauts-Geneveys.

CFF operates the line in collaboration with BLS AG, a Swiss railway company created in 2006 through the merger between BLS Lötschbergbahn and Regionalverkehr Mittelland AG. It is 55.8% owned by the Canton of Bern and 21.7% by the Swiss Confederation. In February 2016, voters in Neuchâtel accept, with 84% “yes”, the Mobilité 2030 Project, which mainly provides for a pre-financing of EUR 110 million (approximately EUR 99 million) for works to the direct line between Neuchâtel and La Chaux-de-Fonds.

Also in February, but in 2019, the Council of States accepts the proposal of the Transport Commission to build the direct line instead of modernizing the existing section. At the beginning of June, the National Council adopts the same position. Finally, on June 21, the two Chambers of the Parliament permanently validate the project.

Modernization vs new line

The use of the Neuchâtel – La Chaux-de-Fonds line has increased greatly in recent years, especially due to the introduction in 2016 of the half-hour train rhythm.

Under these conditions, the Swiss Confederation estimates that there will be a real capacity issue on this railway sector after 2030. The Federal Office of Transport initially proposed the modernization of the line and the introduction of four trains per hour (two fast trains, which would travel the distance in 23 minutes, and two “slow” trains – 28 minutes).

The required sums would have been CHF 290 million for the Chambrelien tunnel and CHF 430 million for the modernization of the line itself. The total value of the investment would thus have amounted to CHF 720 million (EUR 647.5 million), without taking into account the third line necessary at Vauseyon – another approximately CHF 200 million (EUR 180 million).

In addition to solving the Vauseyon bottleneck problem, the direct line will allow a significant reduction in journey times and a doubling of public transport in the canton. Thus, four fast trains per hour will be operated, with a journey time of only 14 minutes.

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