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  • More than just a road hangs on the battle for second trans-Alpine tunnel

    Switzerland is reassessing its view of trans-Alpine transport, a process that could have repercussions for the whole of Europe. A recent consultation process will lead to a proposal, expected next month, to revise the Swiss Road Transit Traffic Act to allow a second trans-Alpine road tunnel, a move that has alarmed environmental campaigners.

    Although not a member of the EU, Switzerland’s position in the centre of Europe – and in the middle of the Alpine mountain range that runs from France to Slovenia – means it is crucial to transit traffic within the EU. Switzerland has long been used by environmental groups as an example of how the EU should be treating transport because of its constitutional requirement to shift freight from road to rail, thereby vastly reducing the environmental damage of every tonne kilometre transported through the fragile Alpine ecosystem. The country’s commitment to extensively develop north-south rail links across the Swiss Alps, as well as its introduction of a distance-related heavy goods charge that internalises the external costs of all lorry journeys on Swiss roads, have also positioned Switzerland as an environmental transport leader.

    However, a decision was taken last year that threatens to undermine Switzerland’s status as a model environmental country. In June 2012, the government decided to build a second road tunnel through the Gotthard pass, despite a constitutional ban on increasing road capacity. To make this decision compatible with the constitution, the government is proposing changes to the country’s Road Transit Traffic Act. The law changes are due to be published shortly, following a public consultation held earlier this year.

    In T&E’s submission to this consultation, deputy-director Nina Renshaw wrote: ‘Switzerland’s national policies undoubtedly incentivise shippers from across Europe to consider and invest in more sustainable solutions for freight. The decision to build a second road tunnel through the Gotthard is a cause for concern. We fear sustainability objectives and EU transport policy goals will be undermined by potentially triggering a domino effect on the whole European transport network. The longevity of transport infrastructure means decisions taken today determine transport policies for decades to come.’

    Switzerland has agreements with Germany and Italy about transit traffic having access to a new rail link through the Alps, and the environmental potential of the proposed Lyon-Turin rail route is dependent on a wider shift of trans-Alpine freight from road to rail. Such developments, and the fact that a number of shippers have invested in rail over road because of Swiss policy, fuel the fears that building a new road tunnel through the Alps will lead to a negative domino effect in European transport. In her submission, Renshaw wrote: ‘A decision at the heart of Europe will have repercussions right across the EU, and can all too easily knock a sustainable transport policy off course.’

    The Alpine Initiative is confident the Swiss people will vote against the second road tunnel. Manuel Herrmann, who is responsible for the NGO’s international policy, says: ‘Under the new Swiss transport minister, Doris Leuthard, there has been a paradigm shift in Swiss transport policy, even though the Swiss people have voted 10 times in favour of rail over road since the Alpine Initiative vote in 1994. We believe they will do so again when the second Gotthard road tunnel is voted on in 2015. The negative environmental effects of lorries are up to six times stronger in the mountains than in flat regions. Because of our efforts, two thirds of trans-Alpine freight goes by rail. It is worrying that the government is undermining the Swiss negotiating position within Europe by pushing for a second road tunnel.’