Straight through the middle

The Gotthard base tunnel is driving intermodal transport. 30 days after its official opening, one thing is certain: The Swiss remain on schedule and will send the first scheduled freight trains through the tunnel by the end of 2016. It is both a legend and a real lifeline: Since the 13th century the Gotthard axis has been one of the main links between Northern and Southern Europe. People have been transporting freight across the Alps along that route ever since. The new Gotthard base tunnel is a further important milestone in Alpine transit. After 17 years of construction, the longest rail tunnel in the world was opened on June 1, 2016. It runs from Erstfeld in the Swiss canton of Uri to Bodio in Ticino. The 57 km route will be opened for freight traffic by the end of 2016. This will make it possible for the first time to pass the Gotthard massif virtually without any notable gradient. The 3,000 planned tests are currently still underway in the tunnel. Among other things, the Swiss AlpTransit Gotthard AG (ATG) is testing the use of 1,500m long freight trains. The longest trains currently used in real conditions are 850 meters long. When the Gotthard base tunnel is officially opened for traffic in 2017, an expected 260 freight trains and 64 passenger trains will use the tunnel every day.

Better north-south connection

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In particular, intermodal freight transport will stand to gain through the Gotthard base tunnel. Roughly 9,000 trains pass through the Gotthard every year. Between Germany and Italy alone, about 15 million tons of goods are transported across the Alps annually. “The north-south corridor is a very important intermodal route. And that also applies for DHL Freight,” says Thomas Kowitzki, Head of Multimodal DHL Freight. The intermodal connections of DHL Freight from Italy to Germany, Great Britain and Scandinavia currently use the old Gotthard railway line. “We see the opening of the Gotthard base tunnel as an important milestone for the optimization of intermodal transport infrastructure in Europe – which will benefit customers, operators and the environment,” explains Kowitzki. The advantages speak for themselves: longer trains and a shorter distance without any significant gradients – meaning that fewer locomotives, less time and thus less energy are required. On the old route the trains have to overcome a difference in elevation of 680 meters – which means that three locomotives are required. By contrast, the new base tunnel rises by only 90 meters, meaning that only one locomotive is required as a traction engine.

Southern ports becoming more attractive

Transalpine freight will surely benefit. The Gotthard base tunnel is also an important section of the Rotterdam-Genoa freight corridor. It will make a significant contribution towards realigning European freight streams. Until now, the northern ports of Rotterdam or Hamburg have played a dominant role for Chinese imports, for example. But that could change with the Gotthard base tunnel, especially when it comes to goods with the target regions of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. This is where southern ports such as La Spezia, Genoa and Savona will become more attractive. Accordingly, they are also looking to expand their proportion of railway transport. But this is still a long way off and all part of a long-term development. In order to enable rapid transport from Rotterdam to Genoa, the connections in the north – i.e. the expansion of the Rhine valley line from Karlsruhe to Basel – and the Ceneri base tunnel have to be completed. The Ceneri tunnel is under construction and scheduled to open in 2020. The 182 kilometer Rhine valley line expansion between Karlsruhe and Basel is expected to be completed by 2035.

Author: Stephanie Leuwer

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