A TILO (Ticino-Lombardy) regional train at Lugano station (photo © Ciolca / dreamstime.com).
This December sees big changes to train services on the Gotthard route through the Alps. The Gotthard Railway is the main north-south axis carrying direct trains from Zürich and Basel to Lugano, Como and northern Italy.
The only other main-line standard-gauge trans-Alpine route linking Switzerland and Italy is the Simplon Railway which lies far away to the west. It is used by trains from Geneva, Lausanne and Berne to Milan.
The opening in 2016 of the Gotthard Base Tunnel led to big time savings on the Zürich to Milan route, and now there are further improvements in the offing. Earlier this month, the Ceneri Base Tunnel was officially opened. It is a new link offering much faster journeys through Switzerland’s southernmost canton of Ticino, used by all fast trains that follow the Gotthard route south into Italy.
New timetables from Sunday 13 December 2020 will see all fast passenger trains using the new Ceneri Base Tunnel with faster and more frequent services from Switzerland to northern Italy and vice versa. However, do just note that all the good plans mentioned here may be scuppered by a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rail operators are watching rising figures with apprehension, and there’s still a chance that timetable enhancements planned for December may be deferred.
Barring any late changes, from December we can expect to see a dozen trains each day running north from Milan via the Ceneri and Gotthard Base Tunnels to destinations in northern Switzerland. The current timetables show just nine trains. In recent years only one train from Zürich via the Gotthard route has served Italian destinations beyond Milan, namely the EC315 which has run right through from Zürich to Venice, serving Verona and Padua along the way. That train continues in the new timetables, but it’s now supplemented by two other ‘beyond Milan’ services, one running to Genoa and the other to Bologna. The Genoa service will be the first direct train for many years from Zürich to anywhere on the Mediterranean.
Based upon advance timetables released by Swiss operator CFF/SBB (which might still change), we expect to see the following pattern of Eurocity international services on the Gotthard route:
There will be additional fast trains from either Basel or Zürich via the Gotthard Base Tunnel, normally one per hour. These extra trains will terminate in Lugano, and won’t run on into Italy.
On 5 April 2021, a new hourly regional express service (numbered RE80) will be introduced on the Locarno – Lugano – Milan route. So from April, passengers from Basel or Zürich on trains which terminate in Lugano will then be able to change in Lugano for a fast onward RE80 to Italy. For the Lugano to Milan stretch, the RE80 trains will actually be even faster than the Eurocity services.
All in all, the two sets of improvements – one in December than the next timetable iteration in April 2021 – will lead to vastly better connections from Basel and Zürich through to Como and Milan, particularly for passengers who don’t mind a change of train in Lugano. As stated above, there will be more direct trains than ever before, and these will be augmented by an additional hourly Gotthard option with an easy change in Lugano.
That new fast regional service from Locarno via Lugano and Como to Milan will be the latest addition to the TILO network - enhancing rail connectivity in the Ticino (TI) - Lombardy (LO) cross-border economic region.
With the journey time from Basel to Lugano now trimmed to under three hours, many passengers from south-west Germany who might previously have routed via Zürich will in the future find it faster to travel via Basel and Lugano rather than Zürich.
The alternative Simplon route will not see much change to its timetables from December 2020, with – just as now – three direct Eurocity trains each day running from Basel via Berne and the Simplon Tunnel to Milan. In addition, the Simplon Tunnel will see four Eurocity trains each day from Geneva to Milan, one of which will continue beyond Milan to Venice.