A railway tunnel that would cost over 10 billion euros and take 25 years to work on? It seems crazy and many countries wouldn’t do it. However, such a tunnel is being built in Europe, and in the article you can read about how complex it is, what the advantages and disadvantages will be, but also how Romania is doing in terms of long tunnels.
Train in the Brenner PassPhoto: Leonid Andronov, Dreamstime.com
- The most complex railway tunnels end up costing more than 150 million dollars/km and even the most efficient countries take more than ten years to build them. The longest railway tunnel through which trains pass is Gotthard Base in Switzerland, 57 km long.
- The longest railway tunnel in Romania is 4.36 km long and is found on the Brașov – Intorsura Buzăului line. A 7 km tunnel between Brașov and Sighisoara is under construction and a nearly 10 km tunnel has been proposed in the Azuga area. At the rate at which work is going on here, any tunnel of several kilometers will be built in many years.
- The Brenner Pass on the Italian border with Austria is the lowest altitude pass in the Alps and has been used since Roman times. Trains have been running there for almost 150 years, but now a tunnel is being built that will cost over 10 billion euros. The journey by train will be three times faster through the Brenner Pass.
- Through the new tunnel, speeds of 250 km/h will be possible for the fastest trains, and freight trains will run at 120 km/h. The main goal of the mega-construction is to get as many trucks off the roads as possible, and the goods to be transported more and more often by rail.
- When the tunnel is ready, the work will have lasted over 20 years. The three tunnels have a total length of 234 km, are drilled through various types of rock and there have also been delays due to delayed tenders. It is one of the largest European infrastructure projects ever undertaken, and there are detractors.
The tunnels – Complicated and extremely expensive work. Some key figures
Tunnels are very difficult to build and take an extremely long time, especially since large and expensive machinery is needed and problems related to geology and seepage can occur.
It took the Swiss 17 years to build the 57 km Gotthard Base tunnel, the Lötschberg tunnel took eight years to build, and the one under the English Channel took six years to build.
Construction costs for tunnels are very high. At Gotthard Base, the average cost was over $200 million/km, and at Lotschberg, over $100 million/km.
Several years ago, a proposal for a 22 km long tunnel from Azuga to Dârste, as part of the future rehabilitation of the Brașov – Predeal railway, was proposed domestically, but such a thing would be of the order of sci-fi movies for Romania.
A new proposal refers to a tunnel of almost 10 km between Azuga and Timișu de Sus, but if it is to be built, it will be finished around 2035. The longest railway tunnel in Romania is 4.36 km and is between Brașov and Intorsura Buzăului.
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A 7 km tunnel is under construction in the Ormeniș area. between Brașov and Sighisoara and not far from it, the 5 km long Homorod tunnel will be built. The work will take a long time, so sooner than 2028-2029 we probably won’t see trains through these new tunnels.
Under discussion is to approve the construction of a 7 km long tunnel in the Balota area, on the Bucharest – Timișoara highway.
Brenner Pass – Geography, History and Distances
The Brenner Pass has been one of the important crossing points of the Alps since Roman times and remained essential for the transport of goods by pack animals in the Middle Ages. It is an important point, because it is found at an altitude of less than 1,400 m, so it was practicable several months of the year. After 1770 the carriage road was finished, and in 1867 the railway was inaugurated.
In the area of the Brenner Pass, the Austrians and Italians started the construction of a mega-tunnel over 10 years ago.
The tunnel will start in Innsbruck, an Austrian city famous for winter sports, and will end in an Italian town called Fortezza, a town in the Trentino Alto Adige region (Südtirol, in German). Innsbruck has 130,000 inhabitants, and the Fortezza did not even have a thousand people before the work began. The population of Fortezza practically doubled with the 1,000 people working on the tunnel in the Italian area.
From Innsbruck to Fortezza (Franzensfeste, in German) are on the line now 78 km, Brenner (Brennero) being 37 km from Innsbruck and 41 km from Fortezza. The fastest trains take 80 minutes on the 78 km. When the tunnel is ready, after 2032, the duration should drop to 25 minutes for the fastest trains and the distance covered will be reduced to 64 km.
From Fortezza it is 49 km to Bolzano, the largest city of the Trentino Alto Adige region. From Innsbruck to Bolzano there are 127 km, and between Innsbruck and Verona, 274 km.
The section is on an important line crossed by international trains such as Innsbruck – Venice, Munich – Rimini or Munich – Verona.
Munich – Verona is one of the most beautiful European railway routes: 434 km, 6 hours and 20 minutes for the fastest train.
From Fortezza there is another branch line to Austria, 109 km, 2 hours and 19 minutes to the city of Lienz (which is 104 km from Villach).
Tunnels that changed history and the great Italian-Austrian ambition
The railway tunnels changed the way of traveling in the Alps and all over Europe forever. In 1853 a railway tunnel of less than 4 km near Geneva was the longest in the world and was, without exaggeration, an engineering marvel of those times.
In 1871, the 14 km Mont Cenis (Frejus) tunnel on the Lyon – Turin line was finished, and the first tunnel under the Gotthard Pass, 15 km, would be ready in 1882. In 1906, the first line of a another legendary tunnel: Simplon.
The longest railway tunnel in Italy is the 18 km long Apennine Base Tunnel, opened in 1934 on the Bologna – Firenze line, the so-called “direttissima”. The longest tunnel in Austria is the Wienerwald, it is 13 km long and is part of a section where the fastest trains reach 230 km/h between Vienna and St Polten. It was opened in 2012.
For several decades, Italy and Austria have been discussing the opening of a more direct and faster rail link through the Brenner Pass, the idea being not only to increase the speed of passenger trains, but especially to increase the amount of freight that is transported by train , instead of being taken with the trucks that fill the roads of the Alps.
The estimate is that the total amount transported by TIRs and trucks on the Italian-Austrian border roads has increased several times in the last three decades, and the traffic jams are more frequent, and the pollution is strongly felt.
60 years ago, the construction of a much shorter tunnel of 12 km was proposed, but the serious plans that form the basis of the tunnel that is being made now were put on paper in 1994 and more than 15 years passed before the works began in full.
In 2007, the most optimistic officials from the two countries declared that the tunnel could be ready in 2022. But there was no way, especially since it is one of the largest European infrastructure projects. Many things had to be worked out, from the route to how expenses are shared.
Why is it so complicated to dig under the mountain
In 2011, work began on the main tunnels, until a few years ago the completion date was 2028-2030, but now, the year 2032 is much more realistic, and this new date was confirmed in the fall of 2021.
In total there will be 234 km of tunnels (two main tunnels plus one exploratory), including the emergency tunnels and various side tunnels. A good part of these galleries have been excavated (over 150 km) and the entire site is divided into seven lots.
Italians call it “Galleria di base del Brennero” and Austrians call it “Brennerbasistunnel”
The 64 km will be covered in 25 minutes by the fastest trains, and the maximum possible speeds will be 250 km/h for passenger trains and 120 km/h for freight trains. On the current version, average speeds are between 60-110 km/h. Probably there will not be many trains on the new version that will run at 250 km/h, but 200 km/h will certainly reach the long-distance trains.
The capacity will be almost 400 trains per day.
The total cost is certain to be over €10 billion, with some estimates suggesting it could exceed €13 billion. It wouldn’t be out of the question given that there are at least nine years left.
The tunnel built from scratch will be 55 km long and will be joined with a tunnel already built – and put into use in 1994 – in the area of the Inn river valley, so that the Brenner Base Tunnel will be 64 km in total. A 600 m long section will also be built to connect the tunnel to Innsbruck Central Station.
The project is being developed by BBT, a company in which Austria owns 50% of the shares through the company OBB, and Italy, through the company Tunnel Ferroviario del Brennero (TFB), the remaining 50%. Half of the funds will come from EU funds and the rest from Austria and Italy.
For this tunnel, the most powerful and efficient drilling machines – the so-called “moles” – were brought in, and their mission is not easy, because it will be necessary to work in an area with tectonic faults and through several types of rock which have different hardnesses.
There were cancellations of tenders, delays caused by technical reasons and some machines did not arrive on time, and the processor crisis was also felt here. About 2,000 people are working on the project, and when the tunnel is ready, some of them will have worked 15-20 years on the construction.
What critics say – Expensive, slow and perhaps ineffective
There are two criticisms of the mega-project in the Alps: the fact that construction is taking an enormous amount of time and that it will cost much more than estimated. Ten years ago it was estimated that the tunnel could be built with 6 billion euros, now it is clear that it will be almost double. In 1994 it was hoped that the tunnel would be ready in 2016 – 2018, but we are talking about 2032 at best.
Critics also say that it will not be easy at all to reduce the number of trucks carrying goods on the alpine roads in the area and to transfer the goods to the railway. For this several things need to happen: tolls for trucks to be increased, other sections of the Verona-Munich line to be modernized and overall rail freight rates to be lowered.
For example, although Switzerland has built several large rail tunnels in recent decades, some freight carriers have not switched to trains because SBB, the famous Swiss company, has very high rates, so all the trucks are more convenient.
Sources: Railway-technology.com, International Railway Journal, Rail Gazette International, .bbt-se.com, newcivilengineer.com, investigate-europe.eu