Research
01.06.16

5 reasons the Swiss do infrastructure better

Illustration by Roland Brückner | bitteschoen.tv

The Gotthard Base Tunnel opened a year early and largely on budget. How did Switzerland do it?

On 1 June 2016, the Gotthard Base Tunnel opened, on time and marginally over budget. The 57-kilometre tunnel, which runs 2,300 metres under the Swiss Alps, took 17 years to build and cost around 11 billion euros. It shaves 45 minutes off the trip from Germany to Italy and reduces environmental costs from highway freight traffic. Considered a resounding success by the Swiss public and government, and the country’s European neighbours, infrastructure experts see it as a textbook example of a well-managed project.

According to the authors of The Governance Report 2016, this achievement is due largely to underlying governance factors. The study outlines how these practices can apply in a wide range of projects and settings to achieve good outcomes. It focuses on how to best implement and deliver infrastructure projects and how risk can be managed across their life-cycle. In a survey of experts from 36 countries inside and outside the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Switzerland ranks number one in terms of infrastructure planning, management and outcomes.

Here are five reasons why the Gotthard Base Tunnel project worked so well, which also reflect why Switzerland performs well in implementing and delivering good infrastructure:

  • Expertise and comprehensive planning before contracting. Thorough planning based on the know-how of experienced project managers made ‘smart buyers’ out of those awarding contracts, placing them at eye-level with contractors. A steady and reliable flow of information between contractors and experienced supervisors in the construction phase was also key. Civil engineer, Renzo Simoni, managed the supervising company AlpTransit Gotthard Ltd. from 2007 until its completion. He brought many years of experience working at a Swiss engineering company specializing in infrastructure.
  • Institutional memory. People within the various public administrative bodies, like the federal audit office (Bundesrechnungshof), as well as at the helm of the project, could draw on vast experience with infrastructure projects – especially tunnels – in Switzerland. Switzerland’s small size and the straightforward nature of the project – digging through a mountain – kept the project from becoming overly complex. In Germany, for example, the multi-layered federal system of financing and managing projects often complicates large infrastructure projects.
  • Stakeholder inclusion. In the Swiss case, this was assured via several referendums, including about whether to build the tunnel (1992), and about the route and the financing. Stakeholder inclusion is vital for garnering public support.
  • Reassessment of risks and costs over the project’s lifecycle. Because of the uncertainties involved in drilling through many different kinds of layers of rock, project managers were aware that initial funding estimates for the project could change over the length of the project – 17 years. These risks and needs were continuously reassessed, meaning it was no catastrophe when it became apparent in the mid-2000s that financial assumptions were too optimistic and new funding was required.
  • Continuous financial oversight. A permanent parliamentary review committee was responsible for evaluating and greenlighting additional costs on a regular basis. This pressure curbed spending, keeping the project on budget for a full 8 years after additional funding was granted. In Germany, such committees only review projects after their completion, to investigate what went wrong, such as in the case of the BER Berlin airport – now four years overdue and nearly double the budget.

See The Governance Report 2016 for more insights about infrastructure governance: Published annually by Oxford University Press since 2013, The Governance Report series presents cutting-edge scholarship on the changing conditions and nature of public policy-making. Information about current and previous reports, as well as the data and rankings, is available on the website: www.governancereport.org.