Switzerland, better known for its mouth-watering chocolates, luxurious watches and pristine ski resorts, just inaugurated the third leg of its tram system in Basel. But unlike other transport systems, the Basel tram system crosses into three different European countries, making it what is being called the world’s first tri-national tram. On December 10th, the first tram traveled from the Swiss city of Basel to Saint-Louis in France. Basler Verkehrs-Betriebe (BVB), the public transit operator in Basel, added the Basel to Saint-Louis line to its extensive tram network that already has a line from Basel to Weil am Rhein in Germany.


A map of Basel’s tramway, delineating the different countries the tram reaches. (CC: Tundria)

Although the dynamics of the Schengen Zone continue to leave many scratching their heads, Basel’s tri-national tram is not just enabled by the Schengen Agremeent. Cross-border movement is no anomaly in Switzerland’s northwest region, where Basel borders Saint-Louis to the west and Weil am Rhein to the north. Years before the age of free movement under the Schengen Agreement, the Alsatian farmers, who are native to modern-day France, were allowed to sell their produce in Basel under an old law (link in German). In 1900, the first cross-border transit in the region was established when the Basel to Sankt-Ludwig (now Saint-Louis) line began running. Following suit, the Basel to Lörrach in Germany opened in 1919. Both of these lines became defunct in the years leading up to and following the world wars, only to be brought back to life by BVB in recent years.

The free movement of goods and people across European borders – or lack thereof – has become characteristic of Western Europe since the Schengen Agreement came into effect in 1995. And with growing talks on outward-looking economic cooperation between Europe and the world, Switzerland’s tri-national tram extension weaves itself into a similar dynamic.

The opening of the Basel to Weil am Rhein line in 2014 came weeks before economic turbulence (link in German), in which the Swiss saw a drop in the Swiss Franc against the Euro. Accordingly, shoppers crowded tram carriages and flocked to the German city in search of cheaper bargains.

Three years after the currency drop, the number of riders to Weil am Rhein has dropped despite the consumerist inkling that encouraged the people of Basel to visit their German counterpart. However, Basel’s tramway speaks to how an open-border policy can encourage more than just a consumerist culture. Other instances of cross-border travel in Europe include a cross-border cycle highway that allows cyclists to cut across Europe’s translucent borders.

Basel’s tramway moves beyond conventional city limits, connecting potential city clusters together. For Basel, the ability to traverse not just city limits, but, also, territorial borders is only facilitated by virtue of the Schengen Agreement. The significance of cross-border travel also lies in a future where borders may possibly no longer restrict movement and human interaction between countries – either following the European model or entertaining an entirely different one. A model where, possibly enabled by initiatives like this one, dissolves borders altogether.