Switzerland's first motorway ran from Lucerne to Ennethorw. Illustration by Marco Heer.
Switzerland's first motorway ran from Lucerne to Ennethorw. Illustration by Marco Heer.

Switzerland’s first motorway

In summer 1955, Switzerland’s first motorway was opened in Lucerne. It was the first piece of the puzzle of what is now the national road network, today covering around 2,254 kilometres.

Alexander Rechsteiner

Alexander Rechsteiner

Works at the PR department of the Swiss national museum and holds an M A in modern English literature and political science.

‘Bern-Solothurn area, between the Härkingen and Oensingen junction, tailback in both directions due to traffic congestion.’ Drivers who regularly travel through northwestern Switzerland on the A1 can now recite this traffic bulletin by heart. Even though there’s no end in sight for its congestion problems, the motorway is the main artery of Switzerland’s transport system, along with the railway network. More than 125,000 vehicles pass through the busiest part of our motorway network – the A1 near Wallisellen – every day. Many people are only aware of localities such as Brüttisellen, Limmattal and Blegi because of the motorway junctions of the same name. Without the motorway, the day-to-day activity that makes up Switzerland’s economy would grind to a standstill. So it’s all the more astonishing that a large section of the Swiss population can still remember a country without motorways. Many of the major sections of our motorway system, such as the Gotthard Road Tunnel, the Nordring in Zurich and the route between Olten and Lucerne, weren’t completed until the 1980s. The history of the Swiss motorway began around 70 years ago in Lucerne. On 11 June 1955, the first motorway in Switzerland was officially opened in the south of the city, roughly where the Eichhof brewery still stands today. At that time the federal government had no responsibility for road construction, but provided 60% of the construction costs of 7 million francs. The media were aware of the historic significance of the 4.1-kilometre section between Lucerne and Ennethorw. The special supplement to the newspaper Vaterland of 11 June 1955 had this to say:

This epoch-making achievement marks a turning point in Swiss road building and, like the opening, in its day, of the first Zurich-Baden railway line, the inauguration can […] be called an event of historic significance.

Vaterland of 11 June 1955
The Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway at its southern end, around 1955.
The Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway at its southern end, around 1955. Staatsarchiv Luzern, A 665/134.5.2
The area between Lucerne and Ennethorw around 1950.
The area between Lucerne and Ennethorw around 1959.
The area between Lucerne and Ennethorw before (1950) and after (1959) the construction of the motorway. The road follows the route of today’s A2, with about half of the road now running underground through the Schlund Tunnel. swisstopo / swisstopo
Construction of the Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway. Grisigenstrasse overpass in Ennethorw, around 1954.
Construction of the Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway. Grisigenstrasse overpass in Ennethorw, around 1954. Staatsarchiv Luzern, FDC 54/183.7
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Construction of the Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway, around 1954.
Construction of the Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway, around 1954. Staatsarchiv Luzern, A 665/134.5.7
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Construction of the Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway. Creating the raw formation through the laying of rock fragments and subsequent lowering with silt, around 1954.
Construction of the Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway. Creating the raw formation through the laying of rock fragments and subsequent lowering with silt, around 1954. Staatsarchiv Luzern, FDC 54/183.1
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Construction of the Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway, around 1954.
Construction of the Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway, around 1954. Staatsarchiv Luzern, FDC 54/183.34
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Construction of the Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway. Grisigenstrasse overpass in Ennethorw, around 1954.
Construction of the Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway. Grisigenstrasse overpass in Ennethorw, around 1954. Staatsarchiv Luzern, FDC 54/183.10
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Construction of the Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway, around 1954.
Construction of the Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway, around 1954. Staatsarchiv Luzern, FDC 54/183.9
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Construction of the Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway, around 1954.
Construction of the Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway, around 1954. Staatsarchiv Luzern, FDC 54/183.8
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Construction of the Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway, around 1954.
Construction of the Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway, around 1954. Staatsarchiv Luzern, FDC 54/183.2
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It is doubtful whether we would still refer to that historic road as a motorway nowadays. Like today’s motorways, the road had four lanes and no intersections. On the other hand, not only was it full of bends – reputedly, the planners wanted to distance themselves from the arrow-straight motorways of the National Socialists – but it had neither a hard shoulder nor crash barriers, and there was no speed limit. There was a pedestrian crossing, and bicycles could also be ridden on the road. Although there were already concerns about structural development and building over the landscape, the overriding national reaction was euphoria and belief in progress. Vaterland wrote: ‘Labelled over-obtrusive and a blight on the natural surroundings, in its execution the project presents to today’s observer an implicitly natural aspect much as if it had always been there. The layout of the road, which in all respects meets the technical requirements while at the same time still being in harmony with its surroundings, not only has not disfigured the landscape, but has actually enhanced it.’
Heavy traffic on the motorway near Horw, around 1955.
Heavy traffic on the motorway near Horw, around 1955. Staatsarchiv Luzern, FDC 54/184.1
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The Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway, looking south, around 1955.
The Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway, looking south, around 1955. Staatsarchiv Luzern, FDC 54/184.3
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Official opening of the Luzern-Ennethorw motorway on 11 June 1955.
Official opening of the Luzern-Ennethorw motorway on 11 June 1955. Staatsarchiv Luzern, FDC 54/183.35
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Official opening of the Luzern-Ennethorw motorway on 11 June 1955.
Official opening of the Luzern-Ennethorw motorway on 11 June 1955. Staatsarchiv Luzern, A 665/134.5.1
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The Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway, around 1955.
The Lucerne-Ennethorw motorway, around 1955. Staatsarchiv Luzern, A 665/134.5.3
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First section of the national road network

Although the first stretch of the motorway was only four kilometres long and at first it was mainly the local populations that benefited from it, people were already aware that this was to be just a small piece of the puzzle in a network of roads criss-crossing Switzerland that would one day connect Hamburg with Genoa. Today, this historic section of road is part of the A2 motorway and, as the E35, this in turn is actually part of the European network from Amsterdam to Rome. With the adoption of the National Roads Act in 1960, the federal government was given responsibility for motorway construction. Ambitions were high, with the relevant department aiming to have built 1,800 kilometres of roads across the whole of Switzerland by 1980.
Map of the national road plan from 1958.
Map of the national road plan from 1958. Swiss Federal Archives
The first section of the national road network ran not far from the first motorway, from Hergiswil to the canton border with Lucerne. It was officially opened in 1962. The first section of today’s A1 between Lake Geneva and Lake Constance, the Grauholz motorway near Bern, followed in the same year. At this inauguration too, the government was at pains to dispel any fears of destruction of the environment and the landscape. The then Federal Councillor Hans-Peter Tschudi pointed out in his speech at the official opening: ‘It is a superb work of modern technology. The motorway blends perfectly into this beautiful Bernese landscape. The works of man do not encroach on the view of our native land.’
Over the course of the 1960s, construction was carried out at various locations on the national road network. More and more new sections were opened. But building a motorway doesn’t just mean laying asphalt; viaducts, bridges and tunnels have to be built. The building of this infrastructure is often expensive and complex, as can be seen in the documents that are now stored in the Federal Archives. In 1964 the French-speaking part of Switzerland also got its first motorway. The route between Geneva and Lausanne was inaugurated just in time for Expo 64.
Official opening of the Lausanne-Geneva motorway on 1 May 1964. Swiss Federal Archives

At full speed, at all times

The motorways removed a lot of unnecessary traffic from the municipalities and small towns. What the highways couldn’t prevent, however, was serious traffic accidents. In fact, between 1960 and 1970, the number of road deaths rose from 1,100 to 1,700 a year. The twin facts that to begin with there were no crash barriers on the motorway’s central reservation, and there were only recommended speeds instead of speed limits, certainly contributed to the high number of accidents. As early as 1963, shortly after the opening of the stretch of motorway between Lucerne and Hergiswil, the canton engineer for the Canton of Nidwalden asked the Federal Roads Office to consider whether a speed limit of 100 km/h could be introduced on the A2. The reason for the request was a serious accident in which three people were killed. However, the request was rejected on the grounds that the Federal Council didn’t want any speed limits on any parts of the motorway. It wasn’t until 10 years later that a limit of 100 km/h was introduced on a trial basis, only to be increased to 130 km/h shortly afterwards. The limit of 120 km/h has been in effect since 1985. In terms of road deaths, the turning point came after 1970. The number of traffic accident fatalities has fallen steadily; in 2019, 250 people died in road accidents.
Speed limits in Switzerland explained. YouTube / America meets Switzerland

The first time…

There’s always a first time. In this series, we will be looking at historic Swiss firsts. The topics covered are very diverse: from the first zebra crossing to the first ever popular initiative. The articles have been produced in cooperation with the Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv (Swiss Federal Archives).

Further posts

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