At the end of 2016, the Swiss Federal Railways started operating the Gothard base tunnel. This railway tunnel is 57 kilometres long and is the longest in the world; it is the fulcrum of the new transalpine railway. In this first stage, the opening of the tunnel implies a significant reduction in the time taken (about 30 minutes) on the north-south route. By the end of 2020, people moving between German Switzerland and Italy will see the travelling time reduced by 60 minutes. The opening of the Gothard base tunnel will also generate a significant impact on goods transport. We expect that 210 trains can transit in future compared to the current 160.
We spoke to Remigio Ratti, economist and author of L’asse ferroviario del San Gottardo. Economia e geopolitica dei transiti alpini (The Gothard railway line. Economics and geopolitics of the Alpine crossings) (Armando Dadò Editore, 2016).
In your book, you divide the more than 100 years of the Gothard railway into four stages. The first three cover 1882 to 1992 and concern the genesis, development, confirmation and standstill period of the railway. The fourth stage concerns the present and future and the need once more to set up, among other items, the market structures of the new railway lines through the Alps. What potential does this setting up process bring with it?
In 2019, the Suez Canal, which connects Port Saïd on the Mediterranean to Suez on the Red Sea by canals and crossing three natural lakes, will celebrate its 150th anniversary. By fortuitous chance, 2019 will also be the 150th anniversary of the convention between Italy and Switzerland for the Gothard, and also the establishment of the Gothard Railway Company. The coincidences continue – on 6 August 2015, the first ships went through the new Suez Canal while, in the autumn of 2015, the first trains tested the railway of the Gothard base tunnel, now fully operational.
Why compare two things apparently very different and distant? History, as Suez e il San Gottardo (Suez and Gothard), the essay on the second half of the 19th century by the great Milanese historian Bruno Caizzi, tells us, is indicating how, despite dramatic events and political uncertainties, the Mediterranean space is progressively (re)assuming the role of trading centre with the East and south-east Asia. Taking for granted the doubling of the capacities, and that Suez and the transalpine ‘plain’ railway tunnels, like the Gothard base and future Brenner and Fréjus tunnels, are, even in their gigantism, now incremental innovations and no longer breakthroughs like those of the 19th century, new elements emerge that relate the Mediterranean ports and Alpine passes. Three elements complete and significantly change the scenario in which the new strong areas of transalpine logistics of the 21st century will be assessed.
In the first place, the historic analogy enables the spirit of the views to be found once more; these are certainly different but necessary to enliven the technical and commercial creations. Today, we are seeing the re-deployment of the enlarged European political and economic space and a metropolitan Europe, with Milan and north-western Italy (Lombardy, Piedmont and Liguria) in a crucial position.
Secondly, the analogies refer to the governance of long-term decision-making and operational processes, spread over decades and always at the mercy of uncertainties and political misadventures. Beyond the technical and economic calculations and sophisticated planning, their governance requires special attention to the strengths and the interweaving of public and private interests and different regional, national and international horizons.
Lastly, it recalls the appeal to overcome the fragmentary nature and conflicts of interest on all scales to find once more, on the contrary, convergences and complementary natures. They can be found between Suez and the Gothard, in the ports and inner harbours of Liguria and the logistics platforms of north-west Italy and the Po metropolises. The same appeal applies for the ports of the upper Adriatic, their hinterland and the TEN-T itineraries involved.
Two different points of view on the European high speed corridors are presented in the book. On one side, the European Union stresses the TEN-T, intended to strengthen the system of large communication routes and, on the other, the individual states “tend to apply a more pragmatic implementation” in dealing with the problems that will be created when the TEN-Ts meet the national and regional railway networks north and south of the Alps. You maintain that these theories are not diametrically opposed. What could the solution be?
Sooner or later, the corridors of the transverse Alpine railways are intended to integrate in the national, metropolitan and regional railway systems north and south of the Alps, just as a water course fed by a water basin enlarges, becomes a river and then enlarges again and flows into a large delta. The problem is being able to qualify that sooner or later, and so define the methods and times of an integration of the corridors into the metropolitan system which, at the same time, doesn’t cancel the visibility and strength of the TEN-T strategy.
It seems that the rules of the game on a European scale and the logics of the market aren’t enough as uncooperative behaviour, based on public and private opportunisms, and generally on short-medium term pragmatism, can be opposed. So there’s a great risk that the impulses of the transalpine base tunnels are in particular opportunistically accepted as a gift for the current players, without being accompanied by real and coordinated efforts to develop a new logistics system able to respond, at the same time, to macro-regional, continental and intercontinental.
The problem is only solved by going beyond the needs and interests of the sector and its individual players to make them converge and attract resources thinking of the final interests, those of the economic system and then the great opportunities still to collect. These already exist if the new transalpine itineraries are considered as a company project, as in the 19th century, finding once more all the force that makes the Rhine-Alps-Mediterranean corridor a vital European, national and inter-metropolitan fabric with the addition of the environmental aim. Two studies summarised in my book show this. One is from the Foundation for Sustainable Development of Rome, Genova-Rotterdam. Un corridoio sostenibile (2012) (Genoa-Rotterdam. A sustainable corridor), and the other is from CERTeT, Il ruolo del nuovo corridoio multimodale Italia-Svizzera nel ridisegno dei trasporti e della logistica del Nord Italia (The role of the new Italy-Switzerland multi-modal corridor in the redesign of the transport and logistics of northern Italy), Bocconi, Milan (2015).
The Gothard railway route involves a particularly complex geopolitical and economic context. What are the next steps that states, institutions and organisations should take to lay the bases for the completion of the route and TEN-T networks?
The geopolitical role of Switzerland, shown not only in the investment in the base tunnels but also with political and advanced proposals for the road-railway transfer, risk being downsized and not bringing, up- or down-stream, the expected effects without a medium- and long-term strategy and overall governance, in particular for the accesses and intermodal structures of the new integrated logistics but also the safeguard and alpine macro-regional sustainable development (Eusalp) and the great European inter-metropolitan relations and those between Europe and south-east Asia.
The Rotterdam/Antwerp-Genoa TEN-T network is advancing intermittently. Nevertheless, Germany is overcoming some delays and will also complete the Karlsruhe-Basel section in the next twelve years. In Switzerland, once the heart (the base tunnels) have been completed, the arteries must also be dealt with just as, further south, the Lugano-Chiasso border section, only announced for the 2040s/2050s, must be brought forward. At the same time in Italy, the Chiasso-Milan section must find a new aspect (in addition to the ongoing technical one), to be considered in the Milanese metropolitan scenario (with an eastern bypass for goods) and its conclusion towards Genoa and the ports of Liguria, to complete the Tortona/Novi Ligure-Genoa HST route. A public-private participation project, known as LuMiMed (Lugano-Milan-Ligurian ports), is maturing. However, the conditions for its implementation highlight how the earnings connected with the alpine ‘plain’ railway tunnels depend strictly not only on a network effect (especially for travellers) but also a system effect that must start urgently through the ‘ports plan’, the ‘iron plan’ and, in particular, the upward movement in the level of Italian ports, those in Liguria first and foremost, possible with the new powers of the port authorities and the direct inclusion in the intercontinental maritime currents attracted by the doubling of the capacity of the Suez Canal.