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Busting through: a feat of engineering to make crossing the Alps a breeze

The Brenner Base Tunnel is a project of the century

It will be a core element of the trans-European corridor between Scandinavia and the Mediterranean and set a new standard for crossing the Alps while also earning the title of longest underground railway connection in the world. Without a doubt, the Brenner Base Tunnel will be a central artery for rail transport in Europe.

“Ah, yes, the Brenner,” is just the sort of resigned expression you can expect from a vacationer who has experienced the pass’s infamous traffic jams or even from a logistics specialist who is dreaming of a fast connection between Northern and Southern Europe. The Brenner Pass at the border between Austria and Italy is the most heavily traveled alpine crossing for both road and rail traffic. Over 30% of all goods traffic crossing the Alps runs over the Brenner, with about 70% traveling by road and 30% over the existing railway line. Trucks alone account for 2.5 million vehicles crossing the Brenner each year. Which naturally means: traffic jams, noise, annoyed residents and high environmental impact.

It is hardly surprising that the Brenner is so popular, though. At 1,370 meters, it is the lowest pass in the Alps, making it an ideal North-South transit route within the EU. The Brenner Base Tunnel is being built as an alternative to the highway and the existing railway route and should improve the environmental situation here as well. The dedicated railway tunnel is intended primarily to promote a shift of heavy traffic from the road to the rails. But significant improvements in passenger transport are also to be expected.


A corridor from Helsinki to Malta

Stemming the rise in heavy goods transport on the road network by promoting the use of more environmentally friendly rail infrastructure is hardly a new idea. The EU adopted this goal already in 1994. It then proceeded to develop the Trans-European Network-Transport (TEN-T for short). The plans continued to develop over time, leading the EU to decide in 2013 to redesign the TEN axes as cross-border multi-modal traffic connections. Today, nine TEN-T corridors connect the most important ports in Europe to the railway infrastructure and its links to the road network.

The Brenner Base Tunnel is an important piece of this puzzle. It will form a central link in the Scandinavian-Mediterranean TEN corridor (SCAN-MED), which runs from Helsinki (Finland) to Valletta (Malta) and connects the urban centers in Germany and Italy with the ports in Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. The entire railway route amounts to 9,400 km. The Brenner Base Tunnel is a central element in this corridor for crossing the Alps. As part of the new Brenner line between Munich and Verona (425 km long), it will bring about a significant improvement in travel and transport options in the heart of Europe. The EU rates the tunnel as a priority infrastructure project and is subsidizing the construction costs at up to 50%. The other half of the cross-border project is being financed jointly by Austria and Italy. The infrastructure project therefore also serves indirectly as a symbol of unity between the peoples of Europe.


What makes the tunnel unique

The logistical significance of this new high-capacity connection from Innsbruck (Austria) to Franzensfeste (Italy) cannot be overstated. The tunnel does not only run under the Alps but under the Italian-Austrian border as well. This point was reached already at the end of November 2021 – 1,450 meters below the surface. 
After its completion, which is currently expected in 2032, it will be the longest underground railway connection in the world. The tunnel section from Innsbruck to Franzensfeste runs a total of 55 km. Including the existing bypass around Innsbruck, the length will be 64 km. This is enough to surpass the current record holder, the 57.1 km long Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland. Taken together, the two main single-track tunnel tubes of the Brenner Base Tunnel add up to 120 km. Including the exploration tunnel, which runs 12 m below the middle of the main tunnel tubes and will provide drainage when the tunnel is complete, the total is 181 km. Adding in cross passages, rescue tunnels and the four entry tunnels yields a grand total of 230 km. That corresponds roughly to the distance from Innsbruck to Venice as the crow flies. It may not run under a large body of water like the Channel Tunnel, but it is no less spectacular and definitely a feat of engineering. The “flying junction” of the tunnel tubes near Innsbruck is also quite impressive. Since the trains coming from Italy travel on the left, while the Austrian trains travel on the right, this measure eliminates a crossing of the tracks.

Previous route a bit too steep

The need for the Brenner Base Tunnel is somewhat connected to the existing railway route, which was opened in 1867. This line section has an incline of up to 26‰ and crosses the Brenner Pass at an elevation of 1,371 m. Both the incline and the capacity limits pose problems, especially for goods traffic. This makes the Base Tunnel an attractive proposition since it is being run as a flat tunnel right underneath the pass. It only has an incline of max. 7‰, which requires much less energy from the trains and significantly reduces the travel time – from the current 80 minutes to just 25. The speed for passenger traffic will be up to 250 km/h and for goods traffic up to 160 km/h. In addition to the shorter travel time, it will also be easier to time the train traffic. The overall goal is to shift traffic from the road to the rails, lowering the impact on people and nature while also providing greater safety from natural hazards – in other words mudflows, avalanches and earthquakes.


Pyramids in the Alps?

As with all major tunnel projects, the boring process produces spoils – and in this case a massive amount: 21.5 million m³. Try to imagine: that would be enough to build about eight copies of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Right there in the Alps…
The plan is for one third of the material to be processed and reused, while two thirds will be deposited near the tunnel and then fully renatured. Protection of the environment has of course not been neglected: measures include cleaning the construction site water before releasing it into rivers, monitoring the air quality in the area and setting up nesting and feeding sites for the animals in the vicinity of the construction sites.

The Brenner Base Tunnel meets the highest safety standards. The two 8.1 m wide tunnel tubes each feature a single railway track. A cross passage connects the tubes every 333 m. These passages would serve as escape routes in an emergency. Three underground emergency stations are spaced at 20 km intervals for pulling over if unforeseen events occur. These are about 500 meters long and are connected to the middle tunnel every 90 meters. Ventilation cross passages are offset from these every 45 meters, making them spaced at 90 meters. The middle tunnel contains a false ceiling. Above this, any smoke from a fire will be extracted; below, fresh air is blown into the safe areas. The emergency stations are connected to the access tunnels and the outside area, which allows positive fresh air pressure to be built up in the middle tunnel to keep the escape routes free of smoke. In an emergency, passengers can be evacuated through the safe middle tunnel and rescued either directly via an access tunnel or with a rescue train.


Historic trade route and “freight explosion”

The importance of the Brenner as a trade route can be seen in its long history. Its relatively low elevation alone made it one of the most important north-south connections in Europe even in the earliest times. In the early Bronze Age, about 1,700 BC, it was already a valuable trade connection between the North Sea and the Mediterranean region. The Romans then built a paved road (primarily for military reasons). In the Middle Ages, the Brenner Road became part of the famed “Strada d’Alemagna,” which ran from Venice to Augsburg and served as one of the most important trade routes in the European region. The significance for goods traffic developed in the late Middle Ages, in the 14th century, when 3,000 tons of goods (spices, wine, sugar, oil and cotton) were transported over the Brenner in carts every year. A regular postal connection through the pass followed in 1522.

At the start of the 19th century, horse-drawn carriages were bringing 15,000 t of goods over the Brenner each year, while 50 years later, this had grown to 60,000 t. The rapidly increasing demand then led to the creation of the Brenner railway, which was considered a technical wonder at its opening 1867.

When the “Brenner Autobahn” was completed at the start of the 1970s, the volume of goods moving through the pass each year only expanded further, most recently reaching 50 million tons per year (about 70% by road and 30% by rail). Of the last 11.5 million trucks to cross the Alps, 2.5 million of them took the Brenner. In other words, it is high time to move this goods traffic from the road to the rails!
We are already looking forward eagerly to the planned completion of the tunnel in 2032.

cargo-partner in Austria

In 1983, CEO Stefan Krauter founded cargo-partner starting out with five people at Vienna International Airport. Now cargo-partner offers its services at six locations in Austria: company headquarters is located in Fischamend, the branch offices at Vienna and Linz Airport, a branch office at the container terminal in Graz, one at the freight center in Wolfurt and another office in Innsbruck.

In addition to sea and air freight as well as road and rail transport, cargo-partner has also invested heavily in contract logistics in Austria and offers a total of 28,150 m² of warehouse space. The iLogistics Center in Fischamend, next to Vienna International Airport, is made of wood and has been built sustainably. It  provides modern logistics and value-added services for spare parts logistics, e-Commerce and retail on 12,250 m² (total warehouse space in Fischamend: 23,200 m²). Directly at Vienna International Airport, cargo-partner runs a pharma center, which offers 200 m² of handling space for loading and unloading airfreight containers at a constant temperature of +2°C to +8°C (total storage area in VIE 1,400 m²). A dedicated screening facility ensures rapid handling of time-critical shipments. In addition, cargo-partner operates 1,300 m² of storage space at Linz Airport and 2,500 m² of storage space at the container terminal in Graz.

cargo-partner is a self-customs clearance agent in Austria and offers all relevant services related to customs clearance and consulting. Another focus has been placed on comprehensive logistics solutions for e-commerce business and parcel shipping.