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Tunnel disasters provide new impetus for move to rail

The Gotthard tunnel disaster gave an extra boost to rail transport of trucks through the Alps Keystone Archive

The two-month closure of the Gotthard tunnel, which reopened on Friday, has focused attention on the problems of trans-alpine road transport.

The deadly inferno which erupted in the tunnel two months ago, claiming 11 lives, came just weeks after the European Union approved its White Paper on transport policy. The thrust of its strategy is simple: to move as much freight off the roads and on to the rails as possible.

The Gotthard was the third alpine road tunnel in as many years to be transformed into a blazing death trap. In 1999, 39 people died in the Mont Blanc tunnel, linking France and Italy. A year later 12 people perished in the Tauern tunnel in Austria.

“These three accidents exposed how fragile alpine transport is, and how dependent we are on road transport,” said Alain Baron of the European Commission’s energy and transport directorate.

Fears confirmed

“The Gotthard accident confirmed our fears. It showed member states that they had to shift from a full road policy to a more balanced policy, involving more rail,” he told swissinfo.

The Gotthard fire, coming after those in the Mont Blanc and Tauern tunnels, had a damaging effect on trade, especially for Italy, which found itself virtually cut off from its markets in Northern Europe.

The Gotthard tunnel allows lorries to travel by motorway from Hamburg in northern Germany to Calabria in southern Italy without stopping. The number of vehicles using the tunnel rose from 200,000 in 1980 to 1.4 million last year.

The EU is largely happy with the safety measures the Swiss have put in place for the reopening of the Gotthard, which was already considered one of the safer road tunnels in Europe.

While cars will be able to travel in both directions, trucks will be restricted to one direction at a time, and drivers will have to maintain a distance of 150 metres from the vehicle in front.

“The new measures represent a further increase in safety,” Baron said.

However, local communities have expressed their disappointment that trucks are being allowed back into the tunnel from day one.

Long-term solution

The reopening of the Gotthard tunnel – and, eventually, the Mont Blanc tunnel – will ease the immediate pressure on the other trans-alpine road routes. But they will do nothing to resolve the long-term problem.

At the end of November, the Swiss transport minister, Moritz Leuenberger met his counterparts from other alpine countries and the EU Transport Commissioner, Loyola de Palacio. They agreed that the Gotthard tragedy had strengthened the need to speed up the transfer of goods traffic on to rail.

That policy is enshrined in the Swiss constitution, but neighbouring countries, notably Italy, have traditionally been less enthusiastic, even if it is a declared aim of the EU.

The EU White Paper says shifting the balance between modes of transport by adopting and promoting rail and water transport is essential to avoid “apoplexy at the centre and paralysis at the extremities”.

Swiss example

“Swiss transport policy is one of the examples we’re trying to follow, in terms of the priority given to rail and the use of a tariff system on lorries to finance new rail infrastructure,” Baron said.

He added that the Gotthard closure has also confirmed the importance of coordinating Swiss and EU transport policy: “If Switzerland is investing in new rail infrastructure, and Germany and Italy are not increasing their capacity, then that investment is useless.”

“These countries will learn quickly that rail is the only solution. Road capacity is at saturation point,” Baron explained.

But the European Commission estimates that the shift from road to rail will take between 10 to 15 years to achieve. Switzerland is building two new rail tunnels through the Alps, the Lötschberg, which measures 35 km, and the 57 km-long Gotthard. But these will not be ready until 2007 and 2012 respectively.

The Italian and French governments have announced that they will build a new high-speed rail link between Lyon and Turin, while another route linking Munich and Verona is being discussed.

Shifting freight onto the rails will not only reduce the risk of catastrophic accidents, it should also improve the air quality in the fragile alpine environment.

by Roy Probert

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR