Strengthening combined transport in Europe
On the 1st of June 2016, after years of planning and many decisions, the time has finally come: the opening ceremony of the Gotthard Base Tunnel in the heart of the Swiss Alps! With 56,978 metres (west tunnel; east tunnel 57,091 metres), the Gotthard Base Tunnel is the longest railway tunnel in the world. It will begin regular operations at the end of 2016, but the first passenger train rides will take place as part of the ceremonies on the 1st of June. To properly celebrate the completion of the project, there will be a large fair, with many guests of state.
Why is a new tunnel being celebrated with a state Occasion?
The mammoth project, carried out by Switzerland in the heart of the Alps, was realised within 17 years, and costs were largely as estimated. The tunnel is designed to relieve trans-alpine traffic and protect the environment, and shift transport of goods from the streets to the rails – as was decided in a referendum in 1994.
The Base Tunnel will have a higher capacity than the Gotthard tunnel, trains will roll more reliably and quicker connections will be possible. For example, together with the Ceneri Base Tunnel, the Gotthard Base Tunnel will shorten travel times for passenger traffic from Zurich to Milan by about an hour. Goods will also be transported faster and more frequently. 260 trains can travel through the tunnel, as opposed to the 180 currently possible with the Gotthard Tunnel. The trains are 740m long, instead of 600m, and can transport 2000 tonnes. After additional test runs and assessment, it is possible this will increase to 4000 tonnes, as the tunnel features only slight slopes and no tight curves. Due to the low, barely noticeable rises on the track, experts say the tunnel has a flat trajectory.
The flat trajectory allows for optimal combined transport, as longer train combinations and fewer locomotives can be used. Up until now, up to three locomotives were required to bring the 600m long train combination through the Gotthard Tunnel. This increased efficiency may well have a positive effect on goods transport and the European economy. It is also entirely possible that smaller train operators with fewer locomotives will get involved in the combined transport industry.
Opportunities of the railway
Additional construction plans will make it possible to transport semi-trailers with a corner height of up to 4m and a width of up to 2.6m from Basel through the Gotthard Base Tunnel and via Chiasso directly to Italy, to important transshipment centers there. This will provide a huge environmental benefit. “With the construction of the new Gotthard railway, Switzerland has realised one of Europe’s largest environmental protection projects,” says Alp Transit Gotthard AG, the construction company responsible for the tunnel, itself a subsidiary of the Swiss Federal Railway (SBB). “It will increase environmental protection in the Alps significantly.”
The Alps are the largest mountain range in Europe and cover parts of eight countries: Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, Monaco and France. If goods are to be transported from Germany to Italy, you must cross the Alps, which in Italy and Switzerland are over 3000m high. This is one of the reasons that truck drivers try their best to avoid the Alps on trans-alpine routes, if at all possible. Due to steep inclines and switchback roads, driving is very slow, and in Winter the passes are often closed. Now, the goods can be transported on trains only 500m above sea level; with 2000m of stone above them.
Over one million trucks pass through Switzerland alone in a single year. The toll this takes on citizens and the environment is enormous. Although the number of trucks travelling through Switzerland has decreased after introduction of the “Performance related heavy vehicle charge” (LSVA), the number travelling through other countries has increased. Now those countries are suffering the effects of emissions and noise on the environment and their citizens. Authorities expect that the amount of goods transportation traffic in the Alps will double by 2030. The completion of the Gotthard Base Tunnel means that 120,000 trucks per year can be moved from the road to the rails; transport times will improve significantly with the use of combined transportation. Experts believe that the time saved could be up to an hour.
The Gotthard Base Tunnel is not the only tunnel currently being built in Switzerland. The project “New Railway Link through the Alps” (NRLA) will see additional tunnels built, all at 500m above sea level. The Gotthard Base Tunnel will be extended by 20km and renamed the Axis Tunnel. Construction will begin at the earliest in 2030. Once the Ceneri Base Tunnel is finished in 2020, and starts operation, rail transport from the North Sea to Mediterranean Sea will be possible. In Italy, the Ligurian harbours are starting to gain the attention of foreign investors. Expansion of many harbours and intermodal terminals has already begun. However, it is extremely important that the German and Italian access routes are completed. Until they are, not many will benfit from the completion of the Gotthard Base Tunnel.
There are still a few years to go before the Gotthard Base Tunnel is at capacity, but it is irrefutable that the Tunnel’s importance will increase over the next few years. As the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs has said: “This is construction for the next generation.”
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