With the Brenner Basis Tunnel, Austria is not there yet

The first freight trains must run through the 55-kilometer-long Austrian prestige project, the Brenner Basis Tunnel (BBT), in ten years from now. The Alpine country can then greatly relieve the Brenner route for freight traffic through Tyrol. Despite the categorical driving bans and the so-called “Blockabfertigung”, this route is now congested with transit traffic between Germany and Italy at the border with Bavaria. However, experts warn that the tunnel alone cannot solve truck congestion in Tyrol on its own. The rail infrastructure must be overhauled and new transhipment terminals must be built to increase loading and unloading capacity, they say.

In 2019, nearly 2.5 million trucks crossed the Alps every year, compared to 2.2 million five years earlier. That amounts to a growth of more than 12 per cent, while rail transport hardly took any market shares. Although this growth rate will be difficult to achieve with the corona crisis, it is clear to all experts in Austria, Germany and Italy that the modal shift is the only way to battle congestion and address the country’s CO2 emissions. With the construction of the Brenner Basic Tunnel, the Austrians are mirroring the neighboring country of Switzerland, which, albeit heavily subsidised, has managed to get almost 70 per cent of all freight transport on rail on certain routes via Gotthard and Lötschberg.

Market share

Rail’s market share on the Brenner routes is barely 29 per cent. The catch-up to the Swiss figures can only be achieved if, in addition to the railway tunnel, which almost halves the travel time from the current 2 hours to 50 minutes, sufficient transhipment points to the south and north of the BBT are also constructed, experts and rail freight operators argue. The rail infrastructure and marshalling yards must also be expanded in order to resolve bottlenecks. It should be noted that before the corona crisis, there were hardly any slots available to allow more trains to run on rail routes across the Alps. Full is full. A new tunnel, which easily costs around 10 billion euros, will not help, say critics.

The extra terminals must become the focal point, according to the recently published “Brenner Corridor” study. These should not only ensure a smooth handling of the expected increase of sea containers when the tunnel is ready, but also take containers from the road today, in order to relieve the overcrowded rail terminals of Munich, Regensburg and Ulm in southern Germany.

Rail carriers are already complaining about a lack of capacity at the existing transfer points. There is a great shortage of space, especially on the German side. The current rail terminals in Munich and Ulm, for example, are already full and discussions about a new rail terminal have been ongoing in Regensburg for some time. According to experts, a second terminal, north of Munich, would also not be a superfluous luxury, since the city’s existing rail freight center cannot be expanded. The Brenner Corridor study looks at suitable future locations, with the main criterium being multifunctional. It should bring together different logistics functions, such as storage, distribution and inland shipping. Rail terminals must develop into consolidation points for cargo, offering other rail destinations as well. Then rail will gain added value for shippers and forwarders compared to road transport, it is said.

Capacity limits

In Germany, some extra capacity is only available at the terminals in Nuremberg, Hof and Burghausen. Even south of the Alps, space is now often limited. For example, the Quadrante Europe rail freight center in Verona, which has three terminals and twenty tracks, is at its capacity limits and operators are already looking for alternatives in the area.

In total, the Brenner Corridor study mentions about a hundred measures that should soon guarantee smooth intermodal freight flows. This includes looking at small terminals on the rail connection between Munich and Nuremberg. Another place for a rail transfer center is Ingolstadt. According to Georg Dettendorfer, it is time for the forwarders to join forces. “Small and medium-sized freight forwarders can no longer look for their own solutions as in road transport, they must offer integrated rail alternatives. Otherwise, the trains will not be loaded as necessary,” it warns.

Collaboration is also necessary to increase the utilisation rate of the special trains on which containers with trailers are transported. These so-called Rollende Landstrasse have a maximum load factor of 80 per cent, while 100 per cent is required. Carriers in this niche are in a critical situation, they now depend on government subsidies to compete with road transport.

The rail operators hope that the longer freight trains will give them a competitive advantage over land transport. The Base Tunnel will soon be able to handle trainsets with a length of 740 meters with a capacity of up to 43 trailers, an increase in capacity by 34 per cent compared to the current freight trains, which have a maximum length of 550 meters. The longer trainsets do mean that a lot of work needs to be done on the rail infrastructure in Austria, Italy and southern Germany, according to rail specialist Kombiverkehr. However, the money for this has not yet been found.

Written by Stefan Bottler and John Versleijen 

Author: John Versleijen

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