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Gotthard fire gives new impetus to move from road to rail

Swiss foreign minister Joseph Deiss discusses the future of transport with his Italian counterpart Renato Ruggiero Keystone

Last week's Gotthard tunnel fire has helped persuade Italy to support Swiss efforts to move more freight from road to rail.

That’s according to the Italian foreign minister, Renato Ruggiero, who was speaking in Bern on Tuesday, after holding talks with his Swiss counterpart, Joseph Deiss.

Ruggiero suggested that Italy’s opposition to moving freight on to trains had softened since a fire forced the Gotthard’s closure, blocking a key north-south route for Italian goods to northern Europe.

“I think I can say that Italy’s commitment to putting freight on the railways has become stronger following the events of last week,” Ruggiero said.

Although Switzerland has been pushing for a transfer of freight from road to rail for some time, neighbouring countries, including Italy, have been less than enthusiastic about the plan.

The Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, told swissinfo that the disastrous fire in the Gotthard tunnel made a change in policy all the more important, and said he had stressed this point to his Italian counterpart at their meeting.

“What is needed is that the new rail connections – the ones we are building in Switzerland now – find a response in partner countries.

“I told the Italian foreign minister,” Deiss continued, “that when the new freight trains arrive in Italy, the infrastructure must be in place to receive them.”

Deiss added that he believed the recent spate of road tunnel accidents had provided new impetus for the campaign to move freight on to the railways.

“In the European Union there is a greater understanding of the dangers of moving freight by road,” Deiss said. “And people are beginning to realise that rail can be more effective and safer, especially as far as freight is concerned.”

Opposition from hauliers

Italy has traditionally had a powerful road hauliers’ lobby, and when Switzerland was negotiating its bilateral agreements with the European Union, the issue of how many trucks could pass through Switzerland by road was one of the trickiest.

Ruggiero said that, although Rome was more favourable to moving more freight on to the railways, the issue was one which must concern all European countries.

“We believe it is the right moment to discuss the transport issue at a European level”, he said. “Transport policy just can’t be formed by one or two countries anymore. We have to have a Europe wide policy; something that works for everyone.”

Fight against terrorism

Deiss and Ruggiero also discussed major international issues, such as the fight against terrorism, and the situation in Afghanistan.

Both men said their views were almost identical on these topics, and added that they had agreed to meet more frequently in future.

But there remains one outstanding disagreement between the two countries: the Italian parliament’s decision earlier this month to change the law, making it more difficult for evidence gathered in other countries to be used in Italian courts.

The Swiss authorities fear this could damage a treaty on judicial assistance signed by both countries, and hamper investigations into organised crime, corruption, and money laundering.

Joseph Deiss said he had reminded Renato Ruggiero of Switzerland’s concerns.

“We did discuss this, I reminded him of Switzerland’s position,” Deiss said. “We hope it won’t harm the treaty of judicial assistance, and I think that is the wish of the Italian side, too.”

Later this month a team of lawyers from the Swiss justice ministry will travel to Rome for talks with their Italian colleagues, in a bid to reach an agreement which will keep the treaty intact.

by Imogen Foulkes

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR