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Digging Deep

Explore Switzerland // By Hester Macdonald // Nov. 29, 2015

The CHF1.5 billion-plus CEVA rail project is on track to link 45 stations in the Geneva region by 2019, upgrading the city to Europe’s urban railway “club”. 

Digging Deep

But public transport is only half the story. Linking Cornavin - Eaux-Vives – Annemasse is also central to the canton’s master plan for development and urban infrastructure.

Sixteen kilometres of new rail track may not sound like a big deal. But the CEVA project is the final link in a 230km public transport resource stretching from Vaud to the French Haute-Savoie and Lyon - and when it opens in 2019 Geneva joins an exclusive group of only 18 European cities with an urban rail network. On the ground, CEVA has employed more than 150 engineering and construction companies, creating controversial traffic disruption and noise. Will the end result be worth it? City authorities firmly believe that “big strategic thinking” is required and that effective crossregion, cross-frontier mobility is central to the Plan directeur cantonal 2030.


CEVA may be a cutting-edge project, bit its roots are in the 19th century. In 1884 Geneva voted for a rail link with Annemasse. But although the project was approved, subsequent work hit strong opposition. Residents battled proposed demolitions – stretching out hostilities until the early 1900s. Then in 1912 came fresh CEVA plans. However, the financial crisis of the 1930s put the project on hold and it was only in 1949 that a single section was built - Cornavin to La Praille. So why now and why has the CHF1.5billion budget already required a CHF100million top-up? 

In 2002 the canton of Geneva, the government and the Swiss railways (CFF) signed a CEVA protocol; but the timeline was a long one. Work did not start until 2005 and by 2008 estimated costs were CHF1.567billion. With five new stations designed by the Pritzker award-winning French architect Jean Nouvel, CEVA was never going to be a cheap option but in 2009 the Geneva State Council asked residents to approve a CHF113million add-on. They obliged with a 61% ‘Yes’ vote.

“The cost of the project increased over time due to new obligations regarding certain areas of the construction – notably changes in the regulations for tunnel security, including new building safety norms concerning the emergency exits. Of course we were happy to make these changes but as these became more defined it was apparent that there would be additional costs. Considering that the original budget was set in 2008 it could be expected that there would be changes and increments,” said CEVA’s Head of Communications Caroline Monod.

Turning to the issue of noise and traffic congestion, Mme Monod is also confident that CEVA has kept roadworks within acceptable limits.

We have definitely tried to keep disruption to a minimum and have made people the highest priority in this scheme. By building the works in sections we have been able to re-open roads as quickly as possible and there is a compensation fund for local traders whose business has been adversely affected. Communication has also been a priority and we have a strategy based on proximity. For those people living and working close to the construction sites we have set up meetings and forums where we are happy to answer their questions. Of course when there is construction like this in the middle of a city there will be noise and dust – but we are doing our best to minimise this nuisance.


Regeneration aside, how will CEVA improve life on a day-to-day basis? Six trains an hour will cross the city centre from Cornavin to Eaux-Vives . The route to Annemasse - via Lancy-Pont Rouge, Carouge-Bachet, Champel-Hôpital, Eaux-Vives and Chêne-Bourg - forms the centrepiece of a new LEMAN Express network extending over 230km, linking a total of 40 stations - 20 in Switzerland and 20 in France. The statistics are impressive. Some 120,000 people are estimated to live within a 500m radius of a new CEVA station – while another 120,000 will work in close proximity. 

Setting CEVA into context is the key to its pivotal role in regional growth. While the Plan directeur communal 2030 sets out a blueprint for the canton, it was the city’s own award winning scheme “Geneva 2020, sustainable renewal of a city centre” that highlighted the following social priorities: promotion of a healthy mix of employment and housing, and the construction of new and affordable homes. With these areas clearly defined it was obvious that CEVA would be crucial to regenerating former industrial and “forgotten” areas into new sustainable neighbourhoods. This forward-focus on environment and the zero-energy sector was commended with a European Energy Award.

Dubbed by local press “Geneva’s project of the century,” CEVA now has a completion date of 2019. As well as protracted tunnel excavation, the construction of a record breaking 25m deep metro station at Champel has challenged engineers. But with 7,000 frontaliers arriving daily to work at the Cantonal hospital, the new linkage with Annemasse should ease congestion and parking. Indeed, with some 80,000 frontalier workers coming into Geneva every day – some 17% of the total workforce - should France have been asked to pay more? The CEVA budget was split between the Swiss government and Geneva, with the French contributing just €234m towards its 2km of track and development at stations in Annemasse and Thonon-Evian.

“One of our biggest challenges is to create enough living space in Geneva. This can be through some limited extensions on agricultural land but above all by increasing density in built areas. Of course what is important if we build a network of densely built urban areas is to connect them through performing transport lines. This is where CEVA plays its important role. And in the downtown areas we are developing leisure, sports and cultural facilities side by side with accommodation. For example, at the Eaux-Vives station, alongside the construction of 340 apartments, the new Comédie de Genéve theatre will bring a new cultural life to this area,” said Vincent Lusser, at the canton’s Department of Planning, Housing and Energy.

So Geneva’s urban growth is actually the most significant issue. Key projects ring-fenced for development include Lancy-Pont Rouge and the PAV sector – linking La Praille, Acacias and Vernets - also Eaux-Vives and Chêne-Bourg, where more than 1,000 new homes and 157,000m2 of commercial and public space are planned. New residents at La Chapelle are already settling into the first of 4,000 new apartments, and Annemasse is set to build another 1,000.


"Greening" the CEVA tracks has also been a high priority. Tree and grass planting will shield new cycle lanes to stations and - in a bid to limit environmental impact - almost 80% of the route is set underground or in “cutand-cover” tunnels, where supporting side walls are built and capped with a concrete roof, allowing the tunnel to be dug out below. At ground level, this creates a pedestrian walkway and a cycle track. The section from Eaux-Vives to Chêne-Bourg will be one of the first of these mobilité douce routes, and at the Viaduc de la Jonction the existing bridge has been rebuilt with a wider footpath and a cycle route. The new designer stations also feature low-rise glass-block construction, maximising on natural light.

So is CEVA a “springboard” for Geneva’s development into a major European city – as State councillors have claimed – or a costly white elephant? Currently one of the largest urban renewal projects in Europe, CEVA is obviously significant. However, for thousands of commuters it will be Geneva’s TPG buses and trams that continue to take the strain. And the good news here? The TPG Mobility 2030 project includes new tram lines to St Genis Pouilly, Ferney Voltaire and St Julienen-Genevois - plus improved bus links to Divonne les Bains and Gex.

Tags: digit, transport

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