THE final breakthrough of the 57km Gotthard base tunnel, the longest railway tunnel in the world, was made on October 15 2010, and intermodal operators like Hupac are not the only ones eagerly looking forward to its opening at the end of 2017. But how much of the expected increase in intermodal and general freight traffic can actually be carried on this route depends on several factors.
With Switzerland's Neat 2017 project to improve transalpine railways, the country aims to reduce road freight traffic from a current level of 1.2 million units a year to just 650,000 by 2019. Under its modal shift policy, this will mean another 1.2 million intermodal consignments by rail in addition to the existing 900,000 units, also taking expected growth into account.

"The Gotthard base tunnel will give a new impulse, but Neat alone is not enough," Kunz warns. He says the Gotthard axis must be considered as part of the entire corridor linking Germany, Switzerland and Italy. While the tunnel itself will take trains of 4m corner height, much of the rest of the infrastructure on this axis in Switzerland can only accept trains with a corner height of up to 3.8m.

Corner height has become an important factor during the last 20 years because of the increasing popularity of semi-trailers, which now account for at least 60% of all lorries. "When the tunnel was conceived, containers and tankers were the main intermodal units. Now there are more semi-trailers, so this must be our focus if we want to shift more traffic to rail," Kunz says. The Europe-wide mega-trailer, with a weight of 40 tonnes and a height of 4m, is now standard. Hupac has already done what it can to reduce the height of its intermodal trains by developing low-floor wagons for semi-trailers. The next move would be to lower track bed and carry out reconstruction work on other parts of the corridor, which could be done at an estimated cost of a few hundred million Swiss francs - a minor sum in comparison with the total cost of Neat of around SFr 19 billion ($US 19 billion).

The Brenner axis in Austria and Italy for example, which was adapted to the 4m profile in 2000, has seen intermodal traffic increase four-fold since then, with semi-trailer traffic growing by a factor of six and now accounting for 28% of this market. Switzerland's new Lötschberg base tunnel, which also has a 4m profile, is already running practically at capacity.

The 4m corner height is not the only problem, says Kunz. While the rest of Europe is aiming for a train length of 750m, trains on the north-south axis across Switzerland are limited to 600m because of restrictions in Italy. "We have been fighting for years to have two more wagons added to transalpine freight trains so we can be a few percent more productive," he says. In addition, there is a lack of handling terminals east of Milan, and there are no plans to set any up; investment plans submitted by Hupac have been turned down. But as Kunz points out: "You cannot have intermodal transport without terminals."

Kunz is backed up by two other players: the Swiss Public Transport Association (VöV) and the Swiss rail shippers' association (VAP), which have looked at these issues from a wider perspective. Mr Hans Kaspar Schiesser, VöV's head of transport policy for freight traffic, says that it is not just a question of providing a 4m profile for freight trains but for double-deck passenger trains as well. The profiles for the two are not exactly the same, but he says that they must cooperate in adapting the corridor for 4m trains as soon as possible. "The longer we wait the harder and more expensive it will be," Schiesser warns.

There is also the matter of priority between passenger and freight trains. Mr Frank Furrer, secretary general of VAP, wants to have better conditions for freight traffic in general, with adequate capacity, an assured share of the schedule and a restructured pricing structure - railfreight in Switzerland is currently priced by weight. At the moment freight generally occupies the paths not used by passenger trains, which are generally at inconvenient times leading to higher costs and poor efficiency.

This is not the first time Kunz and his colleagues have spoken about the importance of such measures for freight traffic on the Gotthard route, and it will certainly not be the last. As Kunz says: "We need to underline the importance of a continuing dialogue with political bodies, by lobbying, if you like. We want to pass on a message: we not only demand a 4m corridor, but we need it earlier than 2025 or 2030 as currently projected; that is too late. I believe that BAV (the Swiss federal transport ministry) now sees the urgency. Failure is no option."