Trouble Spot:
Brenner Base Tunnel

Brenner Base Tunnel

The Brenner Base Tunnel was the centrepiece of the former Priority Project 1, railway axis Berlin-Verona/Milano-Bologna-Napoli-Messina-Palermo. This project envisages the construction of two low- gradient parallel tunnels, mainly for the transport of heavy goods across the Alps. It will run for 55 km from Innsbruck (in Austria) to Franzensfeste/ Fortezza (in Italy). Adding the existing Innsbruck railway bypass the entire tunnel through the Alps will be 64 km long, the longest underground rail link in the world. According to the Commission, the cross-border tunnel across the Alps will remove a major bottleneck in an environmentally sensitive area, shifting heavy traffic from road to a high quality rail service. But that shift isn ́t very likely to take place. The “Brenner Base Tunnel” alone won ́t change anything. The highway tolls for lorries are much lower in Italy/Austria/Germany than they are in Switzerland, and also the prices of diesel are much lower in Austria, which causes hauliers to reroute their transport across the Brenner Pass. Without any accompanying measures, such as higher tolls for lorries or an overarching framework for the Alpine region, this shift from road to rail won ́t succeed. An existing framework is the so-called “Alpine Crossing Exchange”, which works as follows:

  • Cap. A political decision limits the number of transalpine truck crossings to an environmentally acceptable level. The upper limit can be reduced progressively from today’s figure to the desired level. All trucks with a gross vehicle weight rating of more than 3.5 tonnes need a transit right if they want to cross the Alps.
  • Allocate. The Alpine transit rights will either be allocated as a free bonus to freight companies who voluntarily use rail (1 transit unit for the road for every X units by rail), or sold to the highest bidders.
  • Trade. Alpine transit rights can either be used by their owners or be freely traded. An information system supplies reference prices for rail transport.

Road traffic threatens the people in the Alpine region and especially along the highway route via the Brenner Pass. Due to the geographical conditions in the Alps, traffic has a much higher effect on quality of life and on the environment than in low regions. Since 1998 freight transport via the Brenner Pass has increased by about 50%. In 2004 about 1,987,000 motor trucks crossed the Brenner. All related emissions like NO2 or particulate matter also increased significantly and are in certain regions beyond the limits for more than 35 days per year. Along with the nuisance caused by noise the situation poses an enormous threat to the citizens in this region.

The environmental concerns that are linked with the BBT project are mainly connected to the dumping grounds for a huge amount of excavated material and to the hydrological problems that may arise during the excavations. There is a potential threat to the thermal wells on the Brenner and also the risk of causing a large number of springs to dry up.

The tunnel is conceived to foster the shift from road to rail, but the costs of about 8 bn euro are high, and the date for the completion is regularly postponed. The alternatives that have been put on the table are those such as splitting the flows of traffic and redirecting freight transport from the Brenner axis to the Gotthard, which would be much more cost effective; or the opportunity of having a tunnel exclusively for freight transport, which would also be less expensive.

Another problem would be the construction of the feeding roads to and from Italy. The 190 km section in Italy will be at least as expensive as the tunnel itself. Italy has no money for this, and nor has the EU; therefore the threat of an endless construction site is quite realistic. Without the feeding roads, the tunnel would be a waste of money. The local people need solutions now. Is this project the right answer to the people's demands?

Video: Construction works on the exploratory tunnel

Northern approach to the BBT

This project is indeed of high importance and has to be seen in at least two different contexts: one is the construction of the Brenner Base Tunnel, the other is the unbundling of rail traffic from east to west and from north to south which cross each other in Munich. Although the Munich- Kufstein section was taken up in the “Bundesverkehrswegeplan” and the “Bedarfsplan” (plan of requirement) it is classified as "international project". That means that agreements with the neighbouring states (in this case with Austria) are necessary; and there are no indications of a fixed timeline and financial contributions for this project. Germany has linked the upgrade to a 4- track line to the finalization of the Brenner Base Tunnel, for which the time schedule was clarified and practically set for completion in 2020/22. At the moment, traffic from Paris to Bratislava and traffic from Berlin to Verona use the same line in this section, and for this reason it is at the limit of its capacity. In this regard it is of utmost importance to unbundle traffic within the Greater- Munich area. This has already been done for local traffic in the Munich Region, which now has its own track and is able to keep to a regular schedule. However, it is important to upgrade and electrify the section from Munich via Mühldorf to Salzburg for traffic on PP 17 so as to increase capacity on the line from Munich to Rosenheim and further to Kufstein.

As long as the BBT is not completed, governments have time for further discussion and planning; but if they want to realistically increase capacity and shift traffic from road to rail they should not hesitate to start. Governments are urged to prioritise the sections concerned as soon as the financing of the BBT is made clear. In addition, the whole Inntal (Inn Valley) should not be seen separately. There has to be a common concept for the whole region, including transit as well as local and regional traffic. According to the latest information, Germany is due to start studies as soon as the final decision on the BBT is taken.

The fact that the planning for the section along the Unterinntal (Lower Inn Valley) has not yet started, although construction work in Austria between Wörgl and Innsbruck is already going ahead, is not only criticised at the level of the European Coordinators, but also by local mayors along the route, who are heavily criticising the dilatoriness of the government in terms of this section. The mayors fear that as a result of the enormous increase in capacity, annoyance, especially due to noise, will increase beyond a tolerable level. The municipalities that are affected most strongly are Kiefersfelden, Oberaudorf, Flintsbach, Brannenburg, Nußdorf, Neubeuern, Raubling and Rohrdorf. The mayors of these municipalities passed a resolution on to the government and to the Deutsche Bahn requesting the immediate upgrading of the whole section. In contrast to this the Inntal Gemeinschaft e.V., a local environmental NGO dealing mainly with traffic problems, proposed a totally different solution. Instead of upgrading the Brenner route along the Inntal they are much more in favour of the establishment of the main transit route via the GotthardTunnel and Switzerland. They claim that this route is a much shorter connection between Germany and the industrial centres in northern Italy than the highway connection via the Brenner is now. Furthermore, it would realistically come into service by 2016 and not in 2020 or later. For these reasons the Gotthard rail route would be much more attractive than the Brenner route and could contribute to a real shift of freight from road to rail. At least this alternative would be much more cost efficient.

Southern approach to the BBT

No BBT without upgraded approaches

A route of about 190 km in length forms the southern approach to the Brenner Base Tunnel. In order not to create a "cathedral in the desert", and to make full use of the capacities of the new tunnel once the tunnel is completed, it is crucial to have the outdated line in the northern Italian regions of Southern Tirol and Trentino between Fortezza and Verona upgraded beforehand. However, up to now the picture is very fragmented concerning the southern section. There has been some preparation for some small priority sections like the section from Fortezza to Ponte Gardena, the bypass of Bolzano and Trento and the new access towards Verona. However, only the first two will be completed within a reasonable time. At least these sections are absolutely necessary in order to tackle the increase of transport along the route. The two other priority sections, the Trentino bypass and the node of Verona, are scheduled to be completed by 2020. The rest of the section should be completed by 2030. However up to the present there is no concrete planning for either of these sections except the BBT itself. In 2003 the local government decided that the planning of the whole southern approach should be done in a concerted manner. Together with the project for the bypass of Bolzano there should be a pre-project for the subterraneous course of the section from Bolzano southwards. The mayors of the communities along the route called for this subterraneous mode of construction because the upgraded line must not jeopardize either the potential of the landscape in terms of tourism or the quality of life of the residents. Within the EIA it is stated quite clearly that the grade and the date of the upgrading of the line are hard to envisage. Therefore the EIA was carried out just for the sections Fortezza-Ponte Gardena and the bypass of Bolzano.

The big question that remains open is: who should pay for this? Up to the present the money is not available, nor are there any hypothetical models of financing in place that could convincingly demonstrate the financial feasibility of the tunnel and the approaches, or guarantee a timely realisation.