Notes from Alpine Italy — At the Brenner Base Tunnel

Photo by Lorenzo Buzzoni

The railway station has a sloping roof. At the bar by the roundabout, one can hear the sounds of locals playing cards. There’s a restaurant that offers dishes of Schlutzkrapfen — typical Tyrolean ravioli — to workers in orange uniforms, on their lunch break. 

We are in Fortezza, a small town in South Tyrol, nestled between the peaks of the Dolomites, the River Isarco and the gigantic concrete pylons on which the wide lanes of the Brenner motorway branch off. “Apart from working, there’s not much else to do here,” says Patrick, a resident. “Unless you like throwing money away on the slot machines in the bar.” Patrick fled the war in the Balkans and now works as a cleaner in the offices of BBT SE, an Austrian-Italian public company. BBT SE has been managing the construction of the Brenner Base Tunnel since 2004 on the Austrian (Innsbruck) and Italian (Fortezza) sides of what will be the longest railway tunnel in the world (64 km) once completed.

The construction of the tunnel has brought more than a thousand workers to Fortezza, doubling the number of inhabitants. Most of them are southerners and are an asset to Fortezza’s economy. “See that market and bar? They would have been closed a while ago if it weren’t for the workers who go there to buy cigarettes or have a beer after their shift,” says Patrick. Every day, like a swarm of bees, they move out of their prefabricated houses and head for Mules, a few kilometres from Fortezza, to the gateway to the Galleria.

Fortezza | Photo by Lorenzo Buzzoni

We put on our orange jackets, blue helmets and boots to enter the tunnel. We are welcomed by a sign that reads, “Brenner Tunnel. A project that unites.” The light turns pale, and then neon. 

Hidden in the belly of the Alps is an underground world, where traffic lights, trucks, bulldozers and 80 km of conveyor belts criss-cross. There is an anthill of tunnels with tracks and large ventilation pipes, hundreds of lights and a bustle of vans. As you go further in, the temperature rises, the noise becomes louder and the air thinner. A 300-metre-long metal mole — named Serena by the workers — digs ten metres of rock a day.  

Today, 146 km of tunnels have been excavated out of a total of 230 km, including the two main tunnels and an exploratory tunnel that will provide geological information and supply materials and transport debris. 

The Brenner Base Tunnel is the heart of the new railway line from Munich to Verona and is the central part of the TEN-T Scan-Med corridor from Helsinki to Valletta. The EU considers it a priority project and finances up to 50% of the costs. The remaining half is shared equally between Austria and Italy. However, in a special report, the European Court of Auditors highlighted a delay of as much as 12 years in the completion. In the original forecast, 2016 was to be the date of the tunnel’s inauguration. However, the actual construction only started in 2015, with completion postponed to 2028. Costs have increased by at least €2.5 billion — from the €6 billion that was originally planned to €8.5 billion in the latest estimate. In 2020, due to a dispute with the construction companies, BBT SE re-tendered two lots on the Austrian side. This led to a suspension of work, further postponing the tunnel’s completion to (at least) 2032.

“I hope the work here never ends,” says Nino, who works on-site. “I’m on the excavator 10 hours a day, 12 days in a row. Six days of rest, and then we start again.” He sends what he earns to his family. He works overtime and gets €3,200 a month. “I dream of such a salary in Sicily,” he says with satisfaction.

Unlike the old railway line, which was winding and steep, “the tunnel will guarantee the trains a flat route, without bends and [will be] shorter,” explains Giorgio Malucelli, engineer and deputy director of the Mules construction site. An increase in speed, weight and train length will allow trains to reach speeds of 250 km/h, reducing travel time on the Fortezza-Innsbruck section from 80 minutes to 25. 

Construction inside the tunnel | Photo by Lorenzo Buzzoni

One important goal of the project is to transfer a large part of the 50 million tonnes of goods that transit the Verona-Munich route every year via road, to trains. Today, half of all TransAlpine freight traffic passes through the Brenner Pass — 71% by road and only 29% by rail. “The motorway, which was built 50 years ago to revitalise a depressed area, has become a burden. The trucks pollute the area and clog up the road,” says Ezio Facchin, councillor for mobility and ecological transition for the Municipality of Trento.

Although the tunnel is a mammoth project, it has faced little resistance from the local population. There are some No TAV (‘No the High-Speed Train’ movement, specific to the Italian Alpine region) groups, but they are very small, especially when compared to those in the Susa Valley against the Turin-Lyon TAV. According to Andrea Pugliese, president of Legambiente Trento, the reasons are to be found in the fact that “in the Adige valley the question of goods transport is very important, given the number of trucks that pour onto the motorway, as well as the fact that the tunnel is being built in areas that are not very inhabited. Finally, since Trentino-Alto Adige has special autonomy, the province and the municipalities have a say in projects of this kind. And when you do a trial on the ground, you realise how much you can pull the strings and how much you can’t”. 

There have been other criticism of the tunnel construction, though. When Daniel Alfreider, vice-president of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano stated that the tunnel “will be an alternative capable of attracting passengers and goods, rebalancing a 50-50 share of road and rail freight”, Riccardo Della Sbarba, councillor of the Verdi Autonomous Province of Bolzano, replied that an active policy is needed to discourage road haulage, such as the increase in the price of the Brenner motorway toll, which is among the lowest in Italy, and of diesel, which is very low in Austria. 

This is also one of the reasons why the Brenner is the busiest Alpine transit route. “The lorries leaving Lombardy for the German industrial areas should pass through Switzerland. But instead, they extend their journey via the Brenner because it is cheaper than loading the goods on the Swiss railways,” says Thomas Klapfer, mayor of Fortezza.

“If we really wanted to reduce the number of lorries, it would be enough to equalise the tariffs for all Alpine transit routes and there would no longer be any point in going via the Brenner,” says Riccardo Della Sbarba, who, together with the Austrian Greens, has proposed the creation of an Alpine Crossing Exchange. The idea is to calculate the number of transit journeys that Alpine passes and residents can tolerate each year. Once the limit has been set, the permits will be auctioned off, so that “the price of the toll will rise, discouraging unnecessary transits and those who could move by rail”. 

Criticism also comes from Europe. “The EU funds will not be as effective as they could be,” says an auditor from the European Court of Auditors. The reason is that the access routes in Germany and Italy are not yet under construction. As these sections do not receive any European funding, the individual states are waiting for the tunnel to be completed before they invest. The connection from Munich to the Austrian border is still in the planning stage and will not be completed until 2040. “It is not a priority for Germany,” the controller admits, echoing European transport commissioner Adina Vălean’s statement that “the Commission does not have the power to force countries to complete corridors if they do not want to”. 

But without the completion of the access routes, trains will only run at high speed under the Brenner Pass. “The connection will therefore have a very low speed and the traffic will increase on the traditional line, which will become a real hell,” says Riccardo Della Sbarba. “Without a political will to support rail transport, the tunnel will remain a cathedral in the desert, because nobody will have any interest in going through it,” he concludes.