Crossing the Alps: for Switzerland, the job is done!

The opening of the Ceneri Tunnel on Friday, 4 September marks the end of the major works of Alpine crossings in Switzerland. Mission accomplished for this country, which is not a member of the European Union, while the other two neighboring countries are still busy with major works.

The Ceneri Tunnel is the last major engineering structure of the NRLA infrastructure programme that Switzerland started in 1998. The New Railway Link through the Alps (NRLA) is a Swiss construction project for faster north-south rail links across the Swiss Alps. It includes 3 base tunnels:

  • the 35-kilometre Lötschberg Base Tunnel, opened on 7 December 2007, which was the first part of the NRLA to be delivered, but is only partially completed;
  • the 57-kilometre Gotthard Base Tunnel, opened on 31 May 2016 and…
  • … the 15.4-kilometre Ceneri Base Tunnel, which is open this Friday 4th September 2020.
(document wikipedia)

However, let us note three elements: we are talking here about the Alpine crossings on the international flows of the major North-Europe-Italy axis. Second, works on the completion of the second track of the Lötschberg base tunnel is expected to start in 2021/2022 for a targeted opening towards the end of 2028. And three, a fourth tunnel is under construction on south of Zurich, the Zimmerberg tunnel, but during 2010, it was reported that further work on the project had been put on hold indefinitely. Although it is included in the NRLA programme, it is not really part of the international North-South flows since it is mainly intended to facilitate access to Zurich. It can therefore be said that Switzerland, by inaugurating the Ceneri, is completing an important infrastructure programme and that its mission has been accomplished.

(photo Alp Transit)

Crossing the Alps is an important issue for the Swiss. The country is indeed the favourite and shortest passage between Cologne and Milan, but at the cost of significant mountain pollution and endemic congestion of infrastructures. For this reason, Switzerland proposed to drastically increase the price of road transport in transit and to transfer as many trucks as possible to the railways.

Beyond the tunnels, the great challenge of access…
AlpTransit was born in 1992 when a referendum cleared the way for funding of the Lötschberg and Gotthard base tunnels and related works. The main objective was to reduce the number of heavy lorries driving through the sensitive Alpine environment, so cutting harmful exhaust emissions. A target of no more than 650,000 lorries a year transiting Switzerland by 2018 was duly enshrined in law, but as time passed it became clear that the limit would not be never reached. The latest figures for 2019 show that there were still 898,000 trucks in transit, despite rail’s 70% market share.

But the main challenge for the entire Benelux-Italy corridor is to have a road that accepts 4 m high lorries on trains. Although the three completed Swiss tunnels naturally have this dimension, this is not the case for many sections of line in Germany and, above all, in Italy. In Switzerland, the impression prevails that « others don’t do the job » … The inability of the German and Italian governments to make progress on the modernisation of access routes to the dimensions of the Swiss corridor is frequently denied in both neighboring countries through media announcements. In September 2014, Switzerland had concluded an agreement with RFI based on the bilateral agreement with Italy and which contained technical construction requirements for a corridor accepting 4m trucks between Switzerland and Novara / Busto Arsizio (I ). Switzerland pledged to finance the measures at the rate of 120 million euros. RFI, in Italy, provided funding for the Chiasso-Milan section for around 40 million euros.

(photo David Gubler via wikipedia)

The dream of a technical infrastructure with identical standards over a distance of 1,500 km obviously goes far beyond the purpose of the three Swiss tunnels. It refers to the policy of the European Union, which wanted to create a modern and attractive railway by concentrating on corridors « adapted » to the cohesion of the Continent. This modernity involves the addition of several technical criteria, such as the acceptance of a height of 4m for trucks and operation by ETCS, as well as a new type of management through a one-stop shop that designs the timetable train paths. A beautiful idea that has been much delayed, which involves many actors who have all the contradictions and which, above all, is the responsibility of the nations, the only ones responsible for their infrastructures.

A good example of a contradiction is ETCS: it has the favour of the infrastructure managers because it is an opportunity to drastically modernise signalling and safety. However, it is strongly criticized by the operators, for whom it is a huge cost to retrofit rolling stock, and who so far do not see any significant improvements in traffic operations.

What do the neighbors do?
The other major issue concerns Switzerland’s neighbors. In France and Italy, the Lyon-Turin tunnel is still being mistreated by politics, before and after each elections in which everyone gives their opinion and proclaims their invectives. This very Latin context is always surprising in Switzerland where calm and often national consensus prevails. We remember that in 2019, war broke out between the populist Five Star and the equally populist Northern League: two divergent opinions within the same Conte government. The Five Star finally took a beating in the vote on whether to continue work on the tunnel. As explains Andrea Giuricin, in 2020, the report of The European Court of Auditors does not say – as many hastily stated – that the tunnel is useless, but that the extra costs are due to delays caused by the political inability to carry out the major works. A major difference with the culture in Switzerland.

Beyond these quarrels, there are the facts: the rail market share in Lyon-Turin is 14% in rail freight. Additional infrastructure is never unnecessary. Since 2016 in Switzerland, around 1,065 train paths have generally been available each week on the Gotthard and 633 on Loetschberg/Simplon, giving a potential of 1,700 train paths per week. A figure that is unattainable on the Franco-Italian axis.

On the other hand, Austria is in a better position with regard to its tunnel, the work on which is progressing, albeit more slowly than expected. The Tyrol, however, is being hit hard by Switzerland’s road policy: many truckers reach Italy via the Brenner motorway rather than the expensive Gotthard motorway. So the pollution and the problem has been shifted. Why? Because if you add up the Swiss and Austrian truck traffic, you can see that the train didn’t pick up as much freight as expected. What’s worse, truck traffic is still increasing. Consequence: austria’s Tyrol region rolled out traffic restrictions, barring large trucks whose length exceeds 12 metres, from leaving the motorway during set times.

A project for new railway sections is causing concern south of Munich. The aim is to relieve congestion in Rosenheim in order to facilitate access in Austria to the Brenner tunnel currently under construction. This is an essential access that we were talking about above, and which is part of the European TEN-T Scandinavia-Mediterranean Corridor committed by the European Union. But it is Germany that is managing the works… and the slingshot of the local residents.

For its part, Italy is also committed to creating a modern access infrastructure. The Italian rail network manager (RFI) has published the call for tenders for the design and construction of a new Fortezza-Ponte Gardena line, which is the natural extension on the Italian side of the Brenner base tunnel, to reinforce the Verona-Munich axis of the TEN-T Scandinavia-Mediterranean corridor. The 22.5 kilometres would cost around €1.52 billion, financed by the planning agreement between RFI and the Italian Ministry of Infrastructure. The works are scheduled for completion in 2027, with entry into service in 2028. At the same time, the existing Ponte Gardena-Verona section would benefit from a quadrupling of certain sections of the line. Comment from a regional councillor: « This will allow the elimination of bottlenecks caused by traffic on the Brenner axis (…) The specialisation of the lines (passengers/freight) will allow an increase in traffic from the North entering the Verona hub, with a significant impact for the Quadrante Europa freight terminal in Verona, which is today one of the main freight ports in the European scenario. » This is a radical break with the mentality on the Lyon-Turin tunnel side.

We can see that the projects of France and Austria still give rise to much debate and misunderstanding. Dirk Flege, managing director of the German association « Allianz pro Schiene », explains that « the idea of ​​the TEN-T trans-European networks is catching up with what we have failed to achieve in recent decades at national level. » This is the raison d’être of these major works. For Switzerland, it’s a relief: we did the job …

(photo CPC consortium)