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Wednesday, 24 October, 2001, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
Tunnel crash blow to trade
Trucks queue at the Frejus tunnel between France and Italy
More freight may go by rail now that Gotthard tunnel is shut
European north-south trade has suffered a major setback when two lorries collided in the Gotthard tunnel with the loss of 10 lives.

The 10-mile tunnel, linking Zurich with northern Italy, was one of the few major Alpine crossing points supporting one of Europe's busiest trade routes.

The tunnel could face a lengthy closure after parts of the roof have reportedly collapsed.

In 1999 the Mont Blanc tunnel from France and Switzerland to northern Italy was shut after a truck caught fire resulting in the deaths of 39 people died.

It is estimated that 160 million tons of freight crossed the Alps in 1998, two-thirds on trucks, and the EU forecasts that will increase by 75% in the next 15 years.

Tunnel reopening

The closure of a second tunnel will add considerable cost and time to the delivery of goods, as trucks have to use over land routes but it may also speed the revival of rail freight.

More than 5,000 trucks travel through the Gotthard tunnel every day on the most direct route from Germany to Italy.

The mild weather will allow some vehicles to cross the Gotthard Pass above the tunnel but it closes in winter because of snow.

The plans to reopen the Mont Blanc tunnel this year may now also be delayed, despite new safety features including bigger refuge areas in the tunnel, improved warning systems and restrictions on truck traffic.

In 1999, 800,000 trucks used the Mont Blanc tunnel to haul 13 million tons of freight, mainly machinery from France and Germany to factories in northern Italy, before returning with clothes and consumer goods.

Rail alternatives

The Gotthard accident puts added pressure on the EU to come up with an alternative transport system to feed European business demands.

Four-fifths of European freight goes by road because it is cheaper, more reliable and more convenient for pick-up and final delivery.

Europe's rail freight system is in bad shape, so the EU has been pushing for it to be upgraded and for more rail tunnels to be built.

Shifting freight from trucks to rail will also ease the pressure on the existing road tunnels, making them safer for passenger traffic.

New tunnels

France and Italy have agreed on the "Mont Cenis" project to bore a 32-mile rail tunnel under the Alps in southeastern France.

It is only one of several major rail tunnel projects for the Alps that are in various stages of planning.

Austria and Italy are considering a 33-mile railway tunnel under Brenner Pass, which is already major crossing point.

The Swiss Government plans a $8.1bn upgrade of the north-south railway network, including two new 39-mile long tunnels, roughly along the same route as the present Gotthard rail tunnel, but at much lower altitude.

But governments have said they cannot raise the money to cover the immense construction costs of the new tunnels.

Also environmental groups argue that rail tunnels will drag even more industrial traffic into the Alps.

See also:

24 Oct 01 | Europe
Alps tunnels' record of danger
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