• Betuwe and LBT: a tale of two infrastructure projects

    T&E has warned about false or excessive expectations of large transport infrastructure projects. With two rail schemes having opened this month, T&E Bulletin asks writers from the respective countries to see whether the projects are good news or not.



    So it has finally materialised. The new Dutch rail link known as the Betuwe line was officially opened on 16 June. From the very outset the new line has been controversial and opinions on it are still very much divided.

    For years construction was actively opposed by local councils and residents, by economists and by the Dutch environmental movement (including SNM), because of objections to the inadequate underpinning of this mega-project and because of its enormous impact on nature and the landscape, including anticipated noise nuisance.

    The government had always made it sound so good: a freight rail link as a means of relieving the environmental impact of growing road transport. But by the early 1990s a variety of studies had demonstrated that in reality things would pan out rather differently. By providing a new track back to the German hinterland, what the Betuwe line would achieve most was improved competitiveness for the Port of Rotterdam. This would attract even more international freight traffic to the Netherlands, making the country the freight “sewer” of Europe with all the environmental damage that comes with it. This we did not want. Apart from anything else, a green transport option from Rotterdam to the hinterland already existed: river barges along the Rhine.

    There followed a heated debate. After a number of years – during one of several periods to reassess the need for the line and its potential benefits – the Hermans Commission reconfirmed what had already been said: only under the strictest of policy regimes, with introduction of high charges to get freight transport off the roads and onto rail and shipping, could the Betuwe line make cost-effective sense for society as a whole.

    But the powers-that-be were set on the new rail link, and it has finally materialised. Although it now has a number of tunnels and other measures to reduce noise and ecological and landscape impacts (to some extent), there has been no effort to provide the sustainability-oriented freight transport policy the Netherlands so badly needs. Even plans to reduce emissions on the link itself have so far come to nothing: for the time being, the rail companies have opted for diesel rather than electric locomotives.

    It is not what one would call a showcase environmental project. One ray of hope is that the whole messy procedure involving the Betuwe line has led to a political rethink in the Netherlands on how future decision-making on major projects can be improved. This is already starting to bear fruit, with the Zuiderzee line, for example, another mega-project with a far from glorious early history. Dutch planners and decision-makers have now hopefully learned their lesson.

    Willem-Jan van Grondelle
    Stichting Natuur en Milieu


    The 34,6 km long Lötschberg Railway Base Tunnel (LBT) through the Swiss Alps also opened to freight traffic on 16 June. Passenger trains will follow on 9 December, the day the timetable changes. The LBT forms the western part of the Swiss Alpine Transit project.

    The project was the subject of two nationwide votes. The first was the general approval of the Alpine Transit project in 1992; the second came in 1998 when the Swiss accepted the financing of rail projects. Swiss NGOs – some of them critical of the projects at the beginning – accepted the popular vote but warned that freight traffic would not be shifted from road to rail by new infrastructure alone.

    This position was reinforced by the Swiss people when the “Alpine Initiative” was approved in a vote in 1994 – against the will of the Swiss parliament and government. Since then Switzerland has had a legal obligation to protect the Alpine regions from the negative effects of transport and to shift goods from road to rail.

    The Alpine Initiative – the Swiss NGO formed to oversee this constitutional “modal shift” article – welcomes the opening of the LBT with mixed feelings. On the one hand the new tunnel will bring additional rail capacity – at present, 66% of transalpine freight traffic is by rail, which is very high by comparison with other European countries. On the other hand, there are still a number of politicians who believe that new infrastructure will solve the traffic problems. They suggest waiting for the completion of the 57km long Gotthard base tunnel – the eastern part of the Alpine Transit project – which will take another 10 years.

    The Alpine Initiative sees no need to wait. There is already sufficient transport rail capacity across the Alps. It wants incentives to be approved now, such as the introduction of an “Alpine crossing exchange” for the sensitive alpine region and road charges that reflect true costs all over Europe.

    On the technical side, the LBT was completed on time and within budget, characteristics that are increasingly rare among projects of this size. The tunnel will bring a significant time reduction for trains between Switzerland and Italy. Italy and Germany have agreed to complete the necessary enlargements of their lines running up to the tunnel, to avoid the risk that the Alpine Transit project would not enhance the attractiveness of long-distance railfreight.

    But a number of trains will still use the existing “mountain line”, and arguments that the tunnel will save energy use have been disproven, as the high air resistance in the tunnel will raise the energy needed per train by factor of 2-3.

    There is still the need for a broad package of measures to reduce the damage caused by transalpine freight transport, but one parallel measure can now come into effect following Lötschberg base tunnel’s completion. From next year, Switzerland will be able to levy the full rate of its distance-related heavy vehicle fee. It is a further step towards charging road users the full external costs of freight transport, a step that is urgently needed in the whole of Europe.

    Toni Aschwanden
    The Alpine Initiative

    This news story is taken from the June 2007 edition of T&E Bulletin.