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Alpine transit: Keeping them rolling


The Alps are the most accessible high mountain range worldwide. Nevertheless, there is a persistent risk of a gridlock. The future of Alpine transit is still under discussion. One thing is certain: There will be fewer heavy goods vehicles on the road. This is the major planning criteria of logistics experts. “We support a stronger linkage of truck and rail traffic, especially on highly frequented and thus overloaded routes,” says Robert Ziegler, COO Non-Terminal Based Operations & Value Added Services DHL Freight. “We are also looking at new transport options and trying to integrate them into our offering in a timely manner.”

Action leads to improvements

Using Switzerland as an example, the important contribution made by the transition from road to rail with regard to a better distribution of heavy goods traffic becomes evident. Since 2010, road transit there has dropped by 21 percent. The rail transport quota, on the other hand, has risen to more than 71 percent. This is made possible, among other things, by new large railway tunnels instigated by Switzerland, some already operational, some still under construction. At the Austrian-Italian Brenner on the other hand, the rail transport quota is still at 29 percent. But a railway tunnel is under construction at this important mountain pass as well. The Brenner Base Tunnel is expected to finish in 2026.

Environmental problems cause the need for action

Construction activities are a step forward, but that alone will not be enough to reduce the problems caused by the heavy Alpine transit traffic. For future-proof transport planning, neighboring countries as well as many citizens’ action committees have been discussing for years now provisions that are primarily aimed at controlling and reducing road traffic. The envisaged reductions are drastic at times: For example, Tirol is considering halving transit through the Brenner Pass by 2030, with a limit of one million trucks per year. For comparison: In 2017, the counting station in Schönberg registered 2.25 million trucks, an increase of eight percent over the previous year.


Immediate measures with potential for conflict

Since many concepts take time due to the need for international agreements, regions are also resorting to emergency measures that have immediate effects. This includes, for example, convoy controls – a controversial remedy with side effects. At the end of 2017, there were long traffic jams on Bavaria's highways when only 300 trucks per hour were allowed to cross the German-Austrian border on the A 93 outside Kufstein. In addition, convoy controls are contrary to the EU principle of the free movement of goods. Starting in July 2018, the next stage of the sectoral driving ban for the Inn Valley motorway will also come into force. Then Euro 6 category trucks with certain goods such as waste, stone, earth, ores, or motor vehicles will no longer be permitted to travel through Tyrol. Until now, Euro 6 trucks were excluded from the driving ban.

Tolls and controls to keep traffic in check

Even with the toll and road tax disc system, experts on traffic want to have even tools to steer the transport volume. In order to avoid a higher toll in one country from shifting traffic to the others, the idea of a corridor toll has arisen. This is a uniform toll for a transit route. In early 2018, the regions of Tyrol, South Tyrol, and Trentino already professed to coordinated tolls between Munich and Verona. As an instrument for shifting transports away from the roads, policies for stricter heavy traffic controls are also under consideration. Control criteria may be mass, weight, driving and rest periods, and vehicle condition. Likewise, a strictly enforced night driving ban may also act as a lever to reduce traffic.

Standards facilitate easy transport

While emergency measures, tolls, and controls pose many conflicts, the benefits of standards are hardly disputed. For example, experts expect more efficiency from a standardization of the technical systems for piggyback transport, i.e. the transport of trucks by rail. In addition, standardized container traffic render the need for truck drivers to travel on the train obsolete – which at the moment is still necessary in the case of the “Rolling Highway (RoLa)”.

Commercial success dependent on interconnection

The outlook towards more efficiency is also linked to the major tunnel projects. For example, the New Railway Link through the Alps (NRLA) in Switzerland includes the Ceneri Base Tunnel – expected to open in 2020 – as well as the base tunnels on the Gotthard and Lötschberg. Austria and Italy are building the Brenner Base Tunnel. However: The European cross-linking of these projects is currently far from optimal. For example, the building of access routes often gets stuck. In the Bavarian Inn Valley, among others, the exploration drillings for the northern access of the Brenner Base Tunnel have just begun. Critics expect that these routes won’t be available before 2040. In the Gotthard Base Tunnel, which is already in operation, productivity is not in line with expectations. The reasons include the route planning, which is coordinated very sluggish on the international level and the tedious linking of the railway systems. In addition, it is not possible for trains to operate with their most economical train length in all of the neighboring countries.

Regulation via internet

A completely new approach is the concept of an Alpine Crossing Exchange. It treats road transport of goods as a limited resource and sets a quantitative limit – for example, one million transits per year. The idea is to use the Internet to trade transit permits. Only with one of these it will then be possible to use a defined Alpine crossing. Therefore, the interaction of demand and supply dictates pricing. The upper price cap will presumably be set by the cost of transport by train. As EU politics are showing a cautious interest in an Alpine Crossing Exchange, including Switzerland, a corresponding adaptation of EU laws is to be expected. Conclusion: The future of Alpine transit consists of a balancing act between the free movement of goods and environmental considerations. The truck as a means of transportation is clearly on the defensive and will be more heavily regulated.

Heavy truck traffic – a problem for the Alps
  • Valleys and towns are turning into traffic routes
  • Serious enviromental pollution affects the population, fauna, and flora through noise and exhaust fumes, resulting in health risks and environmental damage
  • Impervious surface coverage increases the occurrence of mudslides, avalanches, and floods
  • Kilometers of tailbacks in case of closures or convoy controls
  • Damage to economic sectors such as tourism or agriculture

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25. July 2017 / Reading time: ~ 1 Min.