THE Rhine-Alpine rail freight corridor linking Belgian and Dutch ports with Genoa, Italy, via Germany and Switzerland will reach another milestone when the 15km Ceneri Base Tunnel in Switzerland opens in December this year. Everyone in the Swiss rail freight industry is anticipating a big leap forward in terms of increased capacity and shorter transit times, as it represents the final stage in the Swiss New Railway Link through the Alps project following the opening of the 57km Gotthard Base Tunnel further north in 2016 and improvements along the corridor in other parts of the country.

However, this is not likely to happen as quickly as leading Swiss carriers would like. This is due to a variety of complications within Switzerland and on other parts of the corridor, notably in Germany, which could delay expansion of freight services along this international corridor for at least another decade.

Although the Swiss Federal Council released a report last November setting out a package of measures to encourage modal shift in the face of an inevitable delay, the rail freight industry does not believe that it goes far enough, and expects that capacity increases will be only half that envisaged.

First the good news: Switzerland’s move to shift as much freight as possible from road to rail is paying off - a welcome sign of progress for this small, mountainous country, located as it is on important trans-European trade routes. The success of the Swiss plan for transporting unaccompanied combined transport (UCT) units across the country by rail instead of road is due on the one hand to the imposition of a toll on trucks in 2000 and on the other to the introduction of government subsidies for rail freight operators.

“What we are doing here in Switzerland represents a model for the rest of Europe.”

Mr Hans-Jörg Bertschi, chairman of Hupac

In 2010, 1.4 million trucks a year were congesting alpine highways and the numbers were still increasing. This has since been cut by a third to 0.94 million units and the objective is to reduce the number of lorries passing through Switzerland even further. By contrast, other alpine passes are recording increases of 20-40% in road freight traffic.

“What we are doing here in Switzerland represents a model for the rest of Europe,” said Mr Hans-Jörg Bertschi, chairman of Hupac, a leading intermodal transport operator in Switzerland and one of the market leaders in Europe. “This move to a modal shift doesn’t exist anywhere else,” he added, speaking at a press conference in Bern also attended by representatives of SBB Cargo International and BLS Cargo.

One of the problems facing Switzerland’s international rail traffic is the lack of coordination in planning of train paths in neighbouring countries, which leads to delays and inefficient use of resources. Another factor is the priority system: fast passenger trains always have priority over freight trains regardless of how late they are. This again leads to additional delays for freight trains, leading in turn to lower productivity, higher costs due to sub-optimal use of resources and lower chances of achieving growth, according to Mr Dirk Stahl, CEO of BLS Cargo.

Deteriorating punctuality is also having an effect. According to the Swiss Federal Office of Transport, 10 years ago, 75% of intermodal trains were less than one hour late. Today, this is down to only around 55%, with 12% of trains delayed by 12 hours or more. “For our customers this is simply no longer acceptable,” Bertschi said. On top of that, track access charges are much higher in Switzerland. Bertschi says they are 35% more expensive than in Germany, and 75% more than in Italy.

In addition, there are two locations - near Lugano and the Bözberg tunnel in the Frick valley - where steep gradients require the use of a second locomotive. This means that the original idea of having a single locomotive hauling a 2000-tonne, 740m-long train with a 4m corner height all the way across Switzerland thanks to the Gotthard and Ceneri tunnels will still not be a reality. Moreover, there are still several construction sites and incompatibilities in the train control systems, which also lead to delays. “If we cannot operate heavier, longer and faster trains, it is no good,” says Mr Sven Flore, CEO of SBB Cargo International.


One of the biggest issues facing operators is the delay in carrying out urgently needed upgrades on access routes to Switzerland in Germany. One of the aims of the corridor is to guarantee passage for trains up to 740m long, but this is still not the case. In addition, there is a lack of international coordination in the planning of construction sites, which are frequent and lead to diversions and temporary bottlenecks which can cause substantial delays. Because of this, the reduction in transit times across Switzerland are often lost elsewhere.

In addition, thousands of objections have been raised to projects on various parts of the corridor through the Rhine valley, which could mean that construction work will continue until 2040, or perhaps even longer. This is the only part of the corridor that has no clear alternative route, and the Rastatt incident in August 2017 is a prime example of what can happen in the case of a mishap. Subsidence of the track due to tunnelling work at Rastatt resulted in closure of the mainline for seven weeks, which had a catastrophic effect on rail freight and logistics services Europe-wide, leading to financial losses estimated at up to €2bn.

It is important for this reason to establish an alternative route on the west bank of the Rhine, through France and Belgium, with the additional possibility of switching from one side of the Rhine to the other between Mannheim and Strasbourg. The importance of this scheme was emphasised by a call by all three Swiss market players for a political initiative by Switzerland, France and Belgium to create an alternative route by negotiating a tri-national treaty.

“If we cannot operate heavier, longer and faster trains, it is no good.”

Mr Sven Flore, CEO of SBB Cargo International

The routes, linking Zeebrugge, Antwerp and Strasbourg with Basle, and Wörth with Strasbourg via Lauterbourg, already exist, but do not conform to the corridor parameters of the Swiss transit axis, and therefore only carry a small amount of freight traffic. They should therefore be upgraded to take 740m-long trains with a 4m corner height and weighing up to 2000 tonnes hauled by one locomotive fitted with ERTMS. This would be particularly useful given the fact that Belgium is the biggest market for rail freight passing through Switzerland.

This would create a much-needed second 4m-high access route from the north to Basle, but will obviously take time to complete, possibly 10 years. Other parts of the Rhine-Alpine corridor already have alternative routes, with two lines through Switzerland via the Gotthard and the Lötschberg base tunnels and three connections to Italy via Chiasso, Luino and Domodossola. Germany already has two other north-south corridors in operation via the Brenner in Austria.


As a result of all these deficiencies, the increase in productivity as a result of the NRLA project is only half as much as predicted, and it is likely to stay that way for the next 10 years if the basic conditions do not change, according to Swiss rail freight operators. Consequently, the original aim of rail freight operators being able to run at a profit without subsidies has been delayed.

The original policy of the Swiss Federal Council was to gradually reduce subsidies as rail freight productivity rises. Federal council member, Ms Simonetta Sommaruga, has already commissioned the council to approve a three-year extension up to 2026. But in view of current developments, Swiss rail freight operators are pushing for more support from the Swiss government in the shape of continued subsidies of SFr 55m ($US 57m) a year up to 2030.

This will enable them to bridge the inevitable gap and give them financial security to invest in rolling stock and terminal equipment. Only in this way can they continue to cope with the increase in traffic through the Alps and avoid putting at risk the entire aim of the Alpine Initiative, the independent organisation set up for the protection of the natural habitat of the Alps. Asked about the likelihood of the Swiss rail freight sector being successful in getting their plea for further support approved by the Swiss parliament, Bertschi says he is optimistic.

There is also another factor to be considered. A great deal of traffic flows through Switzerland from the major ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp, but this could change in the future as a result of expansion projects in Italy’s Ligurian ports. Chinese investors are helping to finance facilities for handling the world’s largest container ships. Savona opened such a facility in December. In addition, the Terzo Valico rail project north of Genoa will be completed in 2023, which will give unrestricted access to markets to the north.

How much effect these developments will have on traffic volumes through Switzerland’s transalpine freight corridor is difficult to predict as it depends on several factors on both sides of the Alps. Fluctuations are expected, but only time will tell how great they will be.