THE Swiss city of Basle held its second rail hub congress, BK 16, recently to explore the possibilities of developing its potential as a rail hub in the centre of western Europe. It is already an important location on the transalpine freight route between Rotterdam/Antwerp and northern Italy, and is served by international high-speed passenger trains from France and Germany. However, politicians in this area feel they need to upgrade Basle's urban transport links to meet current and future needs, especially in view of Basle's increasing importance as a logistics centre and its firmly-entrenched pharmaceutical and chemical industries.
Many people cross the frontier from France and Germany every day to work in or around this border city. The total population of the conurbation is around 1 million, though the city itself is small with less than 200,000 inhabitants. Plans have been in the pipeline for some time to set up a regional cross-border S-Bahn system, which would cut journey times and simplify many trips for commuters, who often face complicated journeys using local trams and buses.
Now authorities in all three countries have joined forces to work on this project, the latest version of which was revealed at BK16. Aptly dubbed Trirena, it involves setting up an integrated S-Bahn system combining the local rail operations of all three countries. Representatives from seven local authorities have signed a memorandum of understanding with this in mind. The authorities comprise Baden-Württemberg, Germany; Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine, France; and Basle-Stadt, Basle-Land, Aarau, Jura and Solothurn, Switzerland.
The heart of the system will be a new underground cross-city link, with a new underground station at Basle SBB station and another at the university. Here the line will divide, with one branch going to St Johann where it would connect with the main line to St Louis and Mulhouse in France and the other passing beneath the Rhine to a new underground station serving the existing German Rail (DB) Basle Bad station and the Messe (exhibition centre) and then linking to the lines to Waldshut and Zell in Germany.
In addition to S-Bahn services, the tunnels will be designed to accommodate freight and long-distance passenger trains. The cost of the project is estimated at €1.6bn and the aim is to complete it by 2030.
Whether the project can actually be implemented within this timescale is another matter. While the general tone at BK16 was optimistic, it is obvious that there are a lot of hurdles to overcome. Mr Andreas Meyer, CEO of Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), said he could not see it happening by then.
The question of financing loomed large: it is by no means certain that Basle would get national support for its cross-city link as other Swiss cities are also fighting for their share of the cake. Lucerne, for example, is planning a cross-city link.
With the opening of Zürich's Durchmesserlinie cross-city link at the end of last year and the Ceva rail link in Geneva scheduled for completion in 2019, Basle often feels marginalised, located as it is on the edge of Switzerland.
The question of how to gain the edge in this battle for financial resources came up at BK16; the answer seems to be more lobbying, and/or providing pre-financing. Mr Peter Füglistaler, head of the Swiss Federal Office of Transport (BAV), one of the leading decision-makers in assessing applications for grants, refused to be drawn on this subject, simply counselling patience.
Another point is the viability of the current plans. At the moment the cross-city link is planned to pass under the existing tracks at Basle main station at an angle. Whether this will fit in with SBB's plans for improvements to the station, due to start next year, has yet to be determined. The route chosen for the section to Basle Bad is also in question, since the new S-Bahn will not be connected with the main line north to Mülheim and Freiburg im Breisgau.
Agreeing standards for the S-Bahn project is likely to be difficult as it involves three countries with different cultural backgrounds, two languages, and three different sets of rules and regulations for power supply, safety and security, train control, and a host of other technical issues.
Projects further afield which could impact Basle, such as a nodal hub for rail transport, were also discussed at BK16. The Interregional Alliance for the Rhine-Alpine Corridor, which was founded last year, plans to launch an integrated strategy for developing the entire corridor from Rotterdam and Antwerp to Genoa. Electrification of the line along the north side of the Rhine in Germany (Hochrhein) has been agreed but no starting date is yet in sight; at least the financing is being arranged.
A project which has been around for some time for a rail link to Euroairport, Basle's tri-national airport located in France, northwest of St Louis, has made some progress in that preliminary studies and financing are in the pipeline, but construction is not expected to start until 2020 at the earliest.
However, progress has been made since the first BK congress three years ago. A trimodal terminal, Basle Nord, is to be set up between the German border and Basle's main port facilities - Basle is the highest commercial port on the River Rhine, so a great deal of freight is transferred here for onward transport by rail. A bimodal rail/road yard is scheduled to start up in 2019-20, to be followed by the addition of a new harbour basin hopefully by 2022.
In the meantime, cross-border tram links are slowly being restored. Basle Transport Authority (BVB) extended tram Line 8 to Weil am Rhein in Germany last year, with so much success that it had to double frequency within a few weeks, and the extension of Line 3 tram to St Louis is scheduled to open at the end of next year.
Given that the Trirena project is still at a relatively early stage, it is difficult to see the outcome, but there is certainly a great deal of hard work and tough negotiation ahead for Agglo Basel, the organisation in charge. Success depends on how well the various parties cooperate and whether they can generate enough drive to get the scheme underway - perhaps not in this form or within the timeframe given, but it should at least lay the basis for future cooperation.