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EU: Closure Of Alpine Tunnels Signals Disaster For Euro Transport

The tragic accident in October that closed the Saint Gotthard tunnel through the Swiss Alps has devastated north-south transport routes and affected truck drivers from Moscow to Naples. It comes on top of other recent major alpine tunnel disasters and indicates that a re-evaluation of trans-European transport policy is necessary. What are the alternatives?

Prague, 6 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As history shows, the great Carthaginian general, Hannibal, had his share of problems crossing the Alps with a number of elephants in tow on his way to attack ancient Rome.

Modern truckers, facing the same mountain barriers today, might well be developing an understanding of how Hannibal felt while making the crossing.

That's because the blocking of the Saint Gotthard tunnel in Switzerland threatens to throw Europe's trans-alpine transport system into chaos. Two trucks collided in the tunnel in late October, leading to a pileup that killed 11 people and which has forced the closure of the tunnel for at least six months.

This comes on top of the continued closure of another major north-south link -- the Mont Blanc tunnel between Italy and France -- which was also the result of a fiery truck accident that killed 39 people more than two years ago.

Yet another important alpine tunnel, the Tauern in Austria, was closed a few months after the Mont Blanc disaster, as a result of a similar accident. The alpine tunnels and passes that remain open are hard-put to cope with the overspill of traffic.

With the growth in European economies in the last two decades, more than 100 million tons of freight now travels through the Alps, and road transport has nearly doubled. All of the recent tunnel accidents involved trucks, and the obvious question is whether road transport through long single-bore tunnels is too dangerous.

Donald Armour is an expert with the Freight Transport Association. He places the blame on tunnel construction, not on the truckers themselves: "It's a very broad problem. I think the trouble with tunnels is when they are single bore, there is that much more of a danger of vehicles from one side hitting a vehicle coming the other way. It is like motorways. It is better to have a central reservation, or in the case of tunnels, to have twin bores. But wherever you have vehicles, you are likely to have accidents, unfortunately. But I don't think that trucks are necessarily the cause of a disproportionate number of accidents."

Following the tunnel accidents, there have been new calls for more freight to travel by rail. At present, only about one-third of trans-alpine freight moves by train.

The chief spokesman for the Community of European Railways, Guy Hoedds, says that situation should change: "It [the series of accidents] does point out and reinforce the need for increasing and enhancing the capacity of the railways. That's what the local populations in the alpine valleys have always been claiming, and they are emphasizing the great potential of rail in those instances. It absolutely evident that the railways could bring a greater contribution."

At the Freight Transport Association, spokesman David Russell points out that the railways have a number of limitations of their own: "The biggest problem is that the [rail] networks that link the different land borders are not coherently integrated. Most of them are still state-controlled, and there is not sufficient coordination between the systems. Now, that is something that we have been trying to work out through the European Shippers Council, but there does continue to be a problem."

Plans are underway that, once completed, should greatly ease the situation. Swiss Federal Railways is building two major new rail tunnels under the Alps -- one near the Saint Gotthard tunnel and another under the Loetschberg mountain range.

Swiss Railways spokesman Jean-Louis Scherz says the new tunnels will more than double freight capacity. The trouble is, that will take time. The Loetschberg project should be completed by 2006, the Gotthard by 2012.

Scherz says that, in the meantime, the railways are making special offers to attract extra freight: "We still have spare capacity in our facilities. We can take more freight by rail, and we can do that partly through the existing Gotthard [rail] tunnel, and also through the present Loetschberg and Simplon routes to Italy."

Scherz admits that rail transport is more expensive than road, but it is also safer, he says. However, the fact that spare capacity still exists is an indication that freight companies are not happy with the extra money and time involved in rail transport.

A partial solution may be on hand with the reopening of the Mont Blanc tunnel. It's expected to be open for private car traffic by December, but not for freight traffic until February.

However, that does not address the issue of tunnel safety. There are suggestions that the tunnels should be one-way, with the direction of traffic alternating at intervals during the day. Another idea is that the Mont Blanc tunnel should handle all traffic permanently in one direction, with the Gotthard tunnel handling vehicles from the other direction.

But nothing is likely to be decided soon. And it seems that, for the foreseeable future, transiting the Alps will be almost as rough going as it was in Hannibal's time.