BASLE lies in a unique position on a huge bend in the Rhine at the junction of three countries: Switzerland, France and Germany. Ever since Roman times it has been an important frontier settlement, river crossing point and trading post. The first bridge was built here in 1225 as the only fixed crossing of the Rhine between Lake Constance and the sea. When the first railway from Strasbourg to Basle was completed in 1844, it was quickly followed by a Swiss connection in 1854 and a German line in 1855, Basle's future as an important railway node was assured.
A lot of water has flowed under the city's Rhine bridge since then. With the leap in world trade during the last century, the increasing importance of logistic and transport chains and a growing desire for mobility by the population at large, Basle's location as a gateway is more important than ever. But there are some snags - for there are three national cultures, three railway systems and three different modes of transport (four if you count air) which will have to cope with a projected increase of 74% in international freight traffic and 46% in passenger traffic by 2030.
It was to explore these issues that the first Railway Hub Basle Congress, BK13, was held. Organised by the local chambers of commerce and Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), it attracted politicians, academics and industrial leaders from all three countries. The aims were clear:
• securing transshipment facilities between inland waterways, rail and road
• achieving a balance between local and international rail traffic, which all use the same tracks, and
• establishing a cross-city line.
It rapidly became clear that the infrastructure is critical, and it is essential to upgrade and redesign it to solve bottlenecks and avoid future problems. "It's like a funnel," explains Mr Hans-Peter Wessels, head of Basle's building and traffic department. "We have freight trains from France, traffic from the Basle region, the port of Basle railways and freight trains from Germany, which all have to pass through Basle." And this is in addition to high-speed and regional passenger trains. While the French and Swiss stations in Basle have been under one roof from an early stage, the German station is still separate, being connected to the main station by a bridge over the Rhine. A second bridge has been built but the benefit of having four tracks instead of two will not be realised for some years, as the old tracks need to be upgraded.
Freight transport is a key issue. According to 2010 figures, 95.9% of the international railfreight in transit on the north-south rail corridor through Switzerland passes through Basle. The city lies on two European freight corridors: Corridor A from Rotterdam to Genoa, and Corridor C from Antwerp. Capacity across the Alps will expand enormously when the Gotthard base tunnel opens in 2016, but the new tunnel can only be fully exploited if the access ramps to the north and south are upgraded to take freight trains with 4m corner height - not only in Switzerland but also in Germany and Italy. Swiss intermodal operator Hupac is particularly insistent on this.
An important link in the chain is the port of Basle, the highest on the Rhine, which handles 10-12% of Switzerland's imports and a third of all its heating oil and fuel. This traffic comes upriver from Rotterdam, which is expanding rapidly with the construction of its Maasvlakte 2 container port. "The northern half of this corridor, as far as Basle, is tri-modal, and despite the idea of diverting one third of the freight to another route to the east, the reality is that it comes up the Rhine corridor," points out Mr Hans-Peter Hadorn, director of the port of Basle.
In anticipation of the huge traffic increases expected over the next 20 years, a project has already been launched to open a new tri-modal container terminal at Basle North, which is ideally situated between the highway and the main line, adjacent to the German border and adjoining the Weil-am-Rhein terminal. The road-rail facility could come into operation in 2015, and the terminal will become fully tri-modal once a new port facility has been built, hopefully in 2018.
The Basle North project is part of a two-pronged approach by SBB to expand its container handling facilities, the other project being the Limmattal terminal outside Zürich, which will be the main Swiss hub for maritime containers arriving by train. Why two terminals are needed, rather than just one in Basle, is explained by Mr Nicholas Perrin, CEO of SBB Cargo, who says with the closure of the Niederglatt terminal near Zürich late last year, it is essential to build up container handling capacity as fast as possible, and working on two terminals at once gives a welcome degree of flexibility.
Two operators, Hadorn of the Port of Basle and Hupac, would like to see Basle North handle not only containers but also swapbodies and semitrailers, as they are important market segments. "We're limited by the size of the plot of land," says Perrin. "We do see a potential for growth here, but then the problem is handling." Most semitrailers have to be loaded and unloaded horizontally.
Parallel to these developments are plans to expand passenger services including high-speed trains from Germany and France, and cross-border regional and urban commuter services. Taking the lead from Zürich and Geneva, Basle has hatched a major project to construct a cross-city link, known as the "Herzstück" (heart section), to connect the two existing stations and form the core of a tri-national commuter network. Amazingly, this project was originally proposed 140 years ago, but the plans were locked away and forgotten.
Other schemes include extensions and modifications to the tram network, which is also cross-border, and improved passenger access to the main station. There is also a long-planned scheme to build a rail link to EuroAirport Basle-Mulhouse-Freiburg, the tri-national airport.
Finally, there is the matter of solving the bottleneck between Basle and Liestal, which also handles traffic from the busy Muttenz shunting yard. This heavily-used section will be upgraded under a joint long-term project being developed by SBB and local government. As for the project to build a third railway tunnel through the Jura, the Wisenberg tunnel, opinions at the BK13 were divided. According to Dr Dirk Bruckmann of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH), this scheme is essential to alleviate one of Switzerland's biggest bottlenecks. But Mr Philippe Gauderon, head of SBB Infrastructure, believes it is not necessary before 2040 as the rail network south of the Jura would not be able to handle the increase in traffic in any case. Otherwise alternative routes will have to be found, for example along the Rhine.
The first BK13 congress provided a highly useful networking platform allowing all those with an interest in rail transport in the Basle area and beyond to pool ideas and discuss ways of working together - for even the most favourably situated gateway needs care and attention to function properly. It will be interesting to see what progress has been made when the next conference is held in two years' time.