The economic destinies of four countries are closely linked to rail and road transport infrastructure across the Alps. Rehabilitation work on these infrastructures, rail accidents and weather conditions in the area have reduced their operating capacities, resulting in hundreds of millions of euros lost to the economies of the region.
The economic destinies of Italy, France, Austria and Switzerland seem to be linked to the fate of the few important tunnels in the region dug into the cliffs of the Alps with the increased importance of these transport infrastructures especially for the first of these countries. Isolated to a large extent to the south-east and west, Italy bases its land trade on transport, particularly in the north-west and north directions to France, Switzerland and Austria.
A study presented last month by a university in northern Italy showed that the Mediterranean country loses hundreds of millions of euros because of irregularities on road and rail routes in the Alps. Several tunnels linking it from neighbouring countries have become totally or partially inoperative during the year that just ended.
The closure of the Alpine tunnels linking Italy to its northern neighbours could cost Italian rail operators around EUR 140 million, according to the study published earlier last month. Serious disruptions to Italy’s transport links under the Alps in August due to bad weather unfortunately overlapped with pre-planned maintenance work. This was a blow to the export performance of the Italian economy.
Around 30% of the Italian logistics sector’s goods passing through Alpine crossings to France, Austria and Switzerland travel by rail.
It is estimated that the direct impact of the closures could cost Italian rail operators transporting goods through the Frejus and Gotthard tunnels around EUR 50 million per year in lost revenue and additional costs, with Mercitalia, DB Cargo Italia and Captrain Italia seemingly the most affected transport operators.
The hit could amount to an extra EUR 141 m in the long term, taking into account factors such as the loss of customers who could switch to road transport, according to the report.
Mauro Pessano, managing director of Captrain Italia, says that when customers are forced to switch to road transport for long periods of time, it is difficult to recover. “It’s not going to be that easy, so to speak,” he said. A 5% increase in rail logistics costs could cost wealthy regions in north-western Italy up to EUR 870 million a year, the study estimated.
Frejus link inoperable by 2023
One of the blows to Italian-French connectivity was the closure of the Frejus rail link. Rail services linking Italy and France were suspended following a landslide in the Maurienne Valley at the end of August. Around 10,000 cubic metres of rock fell in torrential rain in Saint-André à La Praz, about 20 kilometres from the French border with Italy. The disaster forced the temporary closure of the Fréjus tunnel, an important road link between St Michel de Maurienne and Modane. Just over a week after the incident, the tunnel was reopened to vehicles. However, the adjacent Fréjus rail tunnel remains closed as repairs are underway.
The line was originally expected to reopen two months after the event, but French authorities now say the work is proving more difficult than anticipated.
François Ravier, regional director of French rail operator SNCF, told the press that the work will take another seven months, hopefully to be completed in the summer of 2024.
Forecasts are that the route could reopen in June 2024, although there is a possibility that services could remain suspended until September, affecting the busy summer season.
To ensure the safe reopening of the Frejus railway, the site of the landslide is currently being cleared to remove unstable rocks that could cause further problems. In total, more than 5,000 cubic metres of rock need to be removed, and the first 1,000 cubic metres were excavated in the early days of last month using explosives. The intervention is being carried out by the local authorities of Savoie, the French infrastructure manager SNCF Réseau and CITEM, a local company specialising in projects in hard-to-reach areas. According to Olivier Thenevet, vice-president of the departmental council responsible for infrastructure, mobility and travel, these actions alone will last until at least early summer 2024. The main problem is that it will not be possible to intervene to restore the rail infrastructure until this process is completed.
Olivier Thevenet says the infrastructure will not reopen before the end of 2024.
This means that trains will have to wait even longer than previously planned to start running on the line again, as previous estimates claimed that the tunnel would reopen in the summer of 2024. Completion times vary depending on geological and weather conditions.
Mont Blanc tunnel maintenance postponed by one year
The closure of rail traffic through the Frejus tunnel has put pressure on other links in the region, including road links, one of which is the road link through the Mont Blanc massif. Scheduled to start in September, maintenance work on the road tunnel here has been delayed by 12 months.
Earlier this month it was announced that the start of maintenance on the tunnel had been postponed until September next year, according to the Italian transport ministry. The Alpine crossing – used by more than 1.7 million vehicles last year – was due to be closed in early autumn for 15 weeks. The subject of the Franco-Italian talks included the timetable for reopening the alternative Frejus tunnel, which was interrupted by a landslide on the French side of the border. The two Frejus and Mont Blanc underpasses are essential for Italy’s exports to France and there were fears that their double closure would have high economic costs. Assolombarda, Italy’s business consultancy association, estimates that 1.4 million trucks transported more than 12 million tonnes of goods through the two tunnels in 2021.
Connections with Switzerland also affected
Italy’s problems don’t end with its border with France, however. The Gotthard tunnel, which is over 15 km long and operated by the Swiss SBB, will also have problems in 2023. It was badly damaged by a derailed freight train in August this year when a wheel cracked. Repairs are estimated to cost between EUR 100 m and EUR 140 m. The tunnel could become fully operational next year, but in the meantime, traffic restrictions are affecting transport capacity.
The entire railway infrastructure will have to be replaced along a 7 km stretch of the tunnel where the derailment occurred. The restoration work is by no means insignificant, involving the replacement of tens of thousands of sleepers, rails and railway embankments. New train timetables will start in December and SBB will try to use the unaffected areas of the tunnel to increase capacity.
Brenner link with Austria also closed
August is also likely to have been a black month for connections to Austria, one of Italy’s most important links in the north (to Germany) and north-east (to Central and Eastern Europe).
From 6 to 23 August 2023, the cross-border rail connection over the Brenner Pass between Austria and Italy was completely closed. The reason was extensive works in the railway tunnels, which affected both passenger and freight traffic. The route was completely cancelled during this period and international freight traffic was diverted via Villach-Tarvisio.
A third of freight transported by rail
According to the latest data published by the Alpine Traffic Observatory (ATO), 223.5 million tonnes of freight are transported through the Alps every year. A total of 155.7 million tonnes, almost 70% of the total, is transported by road, while the remaining 30%, or 67.9 million tonnes of freight, was transported by rail.
The vast majority of the goods crossed the Alps into Austria (139.4 million tonnes or
62% of the total transport volume). Crossings in France accounted for 46.3 million tonnes and the Swiss crossings 37.8 million tonnes or 21% and 17% respectively.
Austrian crossing points. In recent years the modal share of rail transport across the entire Alpine sector has fallen slightly from 31.2% in 2018 to 30.4% in 2019, the lowest level ever recorded. Despite stated political intentions, rail has failed to increase its overall market share in trans-Alpine freight traffic over the past 20 years.
In 2019, Brenner ranked far and away first in terms of total transport volume between all Alpine crossings. Rail transport through Brenner was 13.8 million tonnes, ranking second after Gotthard. However, this figure corresponds to only about half of the combined annual rail flows through the Alpine crossings on the Rhine-Alpine route.
New tunnels across the Alps a salvation?
With infrastructure works increasingly in need of maintenance as the years go by, hopes are turning to new projects that will increase rail transit capacity. One of these is the Brenner Base Tunnel, which is receiving substantial funding, including from the European Union. So far, the EU has provided a total of EUR 1.6 billion in European co-financing for planning and exploration costs and 40% of the project’s construction costs. The remaining costs above the EU funding are shared equally between Italy and Austria. Total project costs for the Brenner Base Tunnel are estimated at around EUR 10.5 billion. The breakdown of total estimated costs includes EUR 8.54 billion for construction works, over EUR 1 billion for risk provisions and EUR 903 million covering likely inflation.
The Brenner Base Tunnel (BBT) connects Austria to Italy and stretches 64 km between Tulfes/Innsbruck and Fortezza, the longest section of underground railway in the world. The BBT terminates in Innsbruck in the existing railway bypass tunnel, which ends at Tulfes. A new escape tunnel is under construction parallel to the bypass. The twin-tube tunnel system between Innsbruck and Fortezza is 55 km long.
A second, but controversial, project is TELT’s Lyon France – Turin Italy rail link. The project covers the construction of 65 km of new line between Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne in France and Susa in Italy, including the 57.5 km tunnel, “the longest twin-tube base tunnel in the world”, according to representatives of the project company.
However, the timing of the completion of the investment is not very close, with controversy in border areas over the project’s environmental impact. The projected timetable for commissioning is 2032, but there are no guarantees that this will be met.