THE Scandinavian - Mediterranean Corridor linking Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Italy via the Brenner Pass through the Austrian Alps is the longest in the European Union. However, the modal split on the core section linking Germany, Austria and Italy is far from ideal, with rail transport accounting for only 29% of traffic, against 71% of freight carried by road. As a result, the route is chronically congested and steadily worsening.

The main focus is on the Brenner Base Tunnel between Innsbruck in Austria and Fortezza in Italy - the core element of the entire corridor. Excavation work is well underway and a milestone was reached in December last year, when tunnelling reached the halfway point. The shell of the twin-bore tunnel is scheduled for completion in 2025, according to Mr Ekkehard Allinger-Csollich, chief officer of traffic planning with the Tyrolian state government.

With a length of 55km, the Brenner Base Tunnel will be the second longest tunnel in the world after the 57km Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland. However, as the Brenner Base Tunnel will connect with the existing Innsbruck bypass tunnel, the continuous tunnel length will be 64km.

Including an exploration tunnel, the two main tunnels, emergency exits and an emergency tunnel, the total length of the tunnel excavation is 234km, with 60% of excavation through hard rock using tunnel boring machines and the rest using classical dynamite techniques. Emergency exits are incorporated every 333m.

Construction has been divided into four lots, with two in Austria and two in Italy.

The total cost of the project is estimated at €9.2bn, with the EU contributing 40% of the construction costs, and Austria and Italy 30% each.

The two single-track railway tunnels, each 8.1m in diameter, will be 40-70m apart, with the 5m-diameter exploratory tunnel running around 12m below. The exploratory tunnel provides information on the rock mass, thereby helping to keep construction costs and times to a minimum, and will be essential for drainage after the entire project is completed. Construction has been divided into four lots, with two in Austria and two in Italy.

Two of the most challenging parts of the project involved crossing the Periadriatic fault, one of the biggest geological fault lines in the Alps, and building an underpass beneath the Isarco River, which involves re-routing a road and constructing bridges and an underpass beneath the existing railway.

The Base Tunnel will be electrified at 25kV ac, rather than the 15kV 16.7Hz used in Austria and Germany or the 3kV dc used on the Italian conventional network. The tunnel will be equipped with ETCS Level 2.

Maximum gradient in the tunnels will be 0.4%-0.7%, therefore practically level, with the highest point at 790m above sea level and 580m beneath the Brenner Pass. The maximum speed will be 120km/h for freight trains and 250km/h for passenger trains. This compares with line speeds on the existing Brenner line ranging from 60 to 110km/h and a 30km/h speed restriction through Brenner station. The existing line has a maximum gradient of 3.1% and a minimum curve radius of 264m. The elimination of the steep gradients and much higher line speeds will cut transit times and allow longer, heavier trains to be operated when the Brenner Base Tunnel opens in 2028.

Access routes

The extra capacity offered by the Brenner Base Tunnel can only be realised if access routes are also upgraded in time. However, there is some concern that the construction or upgrading of access routes in Germany and Italy could be subject to delay and only come on line after the tunnel has opened.

On the approach from the north, DB Networks and Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) are already hard at work. The idea is to divide the project into lots that are completed one-by-one, according to Mr Torsten Gruber, project leader for DB. On the German side of the border, proposals are expected to be complete by the end of this year. In Austria, the construction of more tunnels is planned together with a link to the existing tunnel bypassing Innsbruck, according to Mr Arnold Fink, project leader at ÖBB.

The main aim is to develop an integrated transport policy for the cross-border railway connection between Munich and Verona, which is the main bottleneck on the corridor.

A number of integrated projects are underway to eliminate bottlenecks and increase capacity on connecting lines. The Brenner Corridor Platform comprises representatives of the three European Union member states of Germany, Austria and Italy, plus the five regions involved - Bavaria, Tyrol, Alto Adige, Trento and Verona - as well as rail and road operators and the European Commission. The main aim is to develop an integrated transport policy for the cross-border railway connection between Munich and Verona, which is the main bottleneck on the corridor, to increase rail’s market share and protect the alpine environment.

One project that is already underway is a move towards boosting piggyback rail capacity through Tyrol in cooperation with ÖBB. Capacity will increase from around 250,000 lorries a year during the last few years to 400,000 this year, and there are plans to boost this still further to 450,000 units from next year. This is part of a five-point plan launched by the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (WKO) last year to encourage modal shift. It calls for the re-introduction of the rolling road train service between Regensburg and Trento, which could take up to 100,000 lorries a year off the road network, as well as maintaining all other existing services via the Brenner such as the Brenner - Wörgl and Wörgl - Trento services.

As well as the rolling road technique for carrying lorries through the Alps, there is also the possibility of transporting unaccompanied trailers. Not all semi-trailers can be lifted onto a freight wagon by crane, but there are various techniques on the market for solving this problem and creating a truly intermodal transport chain.

Total compatibility

According to Mr Karl Fischer, general manager of the Logistics Competence Centre LKZ Prien, in Germany, this will need all players in the market to have round-table discussions at EU level. His idea is to have total compatibility at every stage of the transport chain, with new designs of trailers, intermodal wagons, and terminals.

Currently intermodal trains operate with a load factor of up to about 80%, Fischer points out. He proposes the development of a train specifically for the Brenner route called Breco, which could carry everything from containers and swap-bodies to semi-trailers, whether they can be lifted on and off with a crane or not. There are various techniques for dealing with this problem: Fischer’s own solution is NIcrasa, a palette on which a semi-trailer can be driven and then lifted as required. This would mean that trains could be loaded 100% and be truly intermodal, an attractive proposition for small and medium-sized transport companies.

While efforts to achieve short-term improvements along the existing Brenner corridor are welcome, the big prize is the opening of the Brenner Base Tunnel in 2028, which will provide a huge uplift in rail capacity through the Alps.