Freight on railways is a matter of urgency
European transport ministers, meeting in Zurich, have agreed that freight crossing the Alps should be moved onto the railways.
The ministers were invited by the Swiss president, Moritz Leuenberger, in the wake of October's disastrous fire in the Gotthard tunnel, which killed 11 people.
The exact cause of the fire remains a mystery, but it is known that two trucks in the tunnel were involved in a head-on collision.
In Zurich the transport ministers of Austria, Germany, Italy, France, and Belgium met with Leuenberger and the European Transport Commissioner, Loyola de Palacio, to discuss new safety measures.
Unity the only way
In a statement following the meeting, the ministers said they had agreed that no one country could introduce and enforce new regulations on its own. Instead, all new transport policies would have to be Europe wide.
Hans Werder, director of the Swiss department of Transport, said he was delighted with the unity expressed at the meeting.
"We have agreed that we will be making stricter checks on trucks crossing the Alps, in order to make sure that existing safety legislation is genuinely upheld," Werder told swissinfo.
"We know that at the moment not all truck drivers are obeying the rules."
The transport ministers also agreed that tougher safety legislation should be considered; proposals on the table include one-direction-only traffic flow in all of Europe's tunnels, speed restrictions for trucks, and rules about how much distance they should maintain from one another.
Unanimous agreement on rail freight
The Swiss delegation at the meeting was especially pleased at the level of commitment to moving freight from the roads onto the railways. It is a policy already enshrined in the Swiss constitution, but in the past it has not found favour with neighbouring countries such as Italy.
"We are delighted at the agreement over this," said Werder. "We know Italy needs access to the European Union countries north of the Alps, so we are especially pleased that there was such support for putting freight on the trains."
But despite the agreement, Werder warns that alpine transit will not change overnight. "Obviously preparing the infrastructure for rail freight is not something that will happen from one day the next," he said. "But the level of commitment means it will perhaps happen faster than we had hoped."
European Commission support
Swiss president Moritz Leuenberger was also pleased that the European Commissioner, Loyola de Palacio, had been so supportive of the agreement. The question of how many heavy trucks Switzerland should allow to cross the country by road has been a long-standing bone of contention with the EU.
"In the past the commission always disagreed with us that the number of trucks crossing Switzerland by road should be reduced," said Leuenberger. "But now that there is a commitment to freight on the railways, we can start to think about a reduction."
Leuenberger confessed that he was very satisfied with the outcome of the meeting. "I am happy, very happy," he said. "All the invited transport ministers came to Zurich, and they agreed to our proposals."
Although none of the commitments made in Zurich will become reality immediately, they are nonetheless of great significance to Europe's transport policy, none more so than the unprecedented agreement to get transalpine freight onto the railways.
by Imogen Foulkes
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