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Road tunnel opening ends emergency rail service

After the fire, cars crossed the Alps by train Keystone Archive

The reopening of the Gotthard road tunnel signals the end of an emergency service for cars to transit the Alps through the rail tunnel.

Within 24 hours of the closure of the tunnel on October 24, the Swiss Federal Railways were on track with a service to transport cars from Göschenen on the north side of the Alps in canton Uri to Airolo on the southern side in canton Ticino.

“The past three months have certainly put a strain on the Federal Railways in terms of staff and organisation,” Railways spokesman Roland Binz told swissinfo.

However, the Gotthard rail tunnel has managed to stand the test of increased traffic.

“We’ve transported more than 70,000 cars by rail through the Gotthard since the road tunnel accident. We had a capacity of taking 100 cars each hour from Göschenen to Airolo and back and we had a load factor of about 45 per cent,” Binz explained.

The Federal Railways borrowed rolling stock from the Berne Lötschberg Simplon (BLS) Railway to transport the cars through the Gotthard, using the ramps at either end of the tunnel still in place from the car transport service through the Alps that operated before the opening of the road tunnel in 1980.

The BLS has car-transporting rolling stock that runs through the Lötschberg tunnel between Kandersteg in canton Berne and Goppenstein in canton Valais.

“Rolling Highway”

Other measures introduced by the Federal Railways included trains carrying trucks from Brunnen in canton Schwyz through the Gotthard to Lugano, known as the “Rolling Highway”. With a capacity of 112 trucks per day, this service was almost working to the limits.

The “Rolling Highway” service for trucks through the Lötschberg and Simplon tunnels operating between Freiburg im Breisgau (Germany) and Novara (Italy) also felt the effects of the Gotthard road tunnel closure, with demand rising by between 10 and 15 per cent.

The closure also increased passenger numbers through the Gotthard by rail by up to 30 per cent.

“We did not have to increase the number of passenger trains through the tunnel every day but we did increase the number of coaches on train compositions to take account of the extra load,” Binz told swissinfo.

No big business

However, it would be wrong to imagine that closure of the road tunnel meant big business for the Federal Railways.

The cost of a journey for cars through the Gotthard cost SFr25 ($15.29, some SFr5 less than when the service through the tunnel was operating more than 20 years ago.

“We had been considering a charge of SFr40 for the trip but this was turned down by the Federal Transport Office in Bern,” Binz said.

It seems ironic that the Railways have had to pay SFr2.7 million to transform 40 goods wagons of their own into car-transporting rolling stock, which may only be used for that purpose for four days.

“We had to give back the rolling stock to the BLS by December 17 and so had to find another solution for transporting cars through the Gotthard,” Binz said.

“We ordered the modifications at the beginning of November at a time when no one could foresee that the road tunnel would open so soon,” he added.

The wagons now look set to be changed back for their normal purpose, although it is not expected to be expensive.

“That will cost almost nothing and, if necessary, we can change them again to transport cars at little cost,” Binz said.

The Federal Transport Office is to pay the SFr2.7 million bill within its programme of emergency measures after the road tunnel accident. The Office will also receive a bill if the Federal Railways made a deficit with its car service through the Gotthard.

by Robert Brookes

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR