Can Switzerland keep its trains running if energy crisis worsens?
Millions of passengers rely on the usually dependable Swiss public transport network to get them from point A to point B. But this could change if there is an electricity shortage.
In what could be one of the most paradoxical statements in recent months, Switzerland's Federal Transport Office commemorated the 175th anniversary of the national railroad system in March 2022 with these words: “By opting for electricity, the railways bet early on a modern energy source available in Switzerland".
Of course, nobody could have predicted back then that one day electric power may not be as plentiful, affecting the smooth running of Swiss Federal Railways (SBB).
This could, however, happen if there are — as officials predict — power outages caused by European-wide energy crisis.
While the natural instinct might be to blame Russia for this situation, the war in Ukraine is only partly responsible for the impending crisis.
The other reason lies much closer to home: 28 of 56 nuclear power plants in France — which exports electricity to Switzerland — had to be shut down early this year for an undefined period of time due mostly to corrosion damage.
As a result, industry experts say that electricity will likely become scarce during the coldest months of 2022 and 2023, possibly impacting to some degree essential services such as telecommunications, electronic bank payments, and public transportation.
How worried should we be about trains being out of service?
As Switzerland’s rail system has its own power resources, in the event of a general breakdown its energy autonomy is estimated at about one hour — just enough time to bring the trains back to the station and not leave passengers stranded.
However, in a complete blackout, all train services would come to a standstill.
Depending on the extent of disruptions, Switzerland’s economy could suffer, as it relies heavily on trains —not only for passenger traffic but also for transporting goods.
For Franck Furrer, secretary general of the Association of Shippers "freight has very few paths on the rail infrastructure" and lack of electricity would impact the transport significantly.
What about passengers?
SBB has been preparing for such worst-case scenarios, the company announced on Thursday.
Swiss trains “are powered 90 percent by hydro energy,” mainly from SBB’s own power stations. However, these facilities currently produce less energy due to drought and low water levels in the reservoirs over the summer.
While the company said it is trying to ensure that its “reservoirs remain at their maximum level”, in the meantime it has to buy substitute energy on the market “at constantly rising prices”.
Still, there is no guarantee that the trains will be able to run all winter without any disruptions.
In the event that the government imposes restrictions on energy use, "the rail offer should be greatly reduced or would lead to an interruption of services”, SBB said.
Could the government order limits on energy use that would impact public transportation?
If shortages were to become serious, the Organisation for Electricity Supply in Extraordinary Situations (Ostral) would activate a four-step procedure.
As a first step, the Federal Council will call on the population (individuals and businesses alike) to voluntarily reduce their electricity consumption.
If this is not enough, consumption restrictions will be imposed. Among them would be the ban on operating ski lifts, as well as limits on other infrastructures that use up a lot of electricity — and that would include public transport system.