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Top 5 Routes Across the Alps

When looking at historic routes across the Alps it is interesting to contrast it with modern trans-alpine traffic.

What are the top 5 routes across the Alps today?

Here it is worth noting that we have road and rail routes today. Even if they often run in parallel, there are interesting exceptions.

Let’s look at the top 5 routes across the Alps in terms of goods transported and individual vehicles (2017/2018 figures):

Vehicles per day Combined freight in million tons Road freight in million tons Rail freight in million tons
1.Brenner 36,238 52.9 38.8 14.1
2.St. Gotthard 17,061 23.7 8.4 15.3
3.Tauern 21,687 23.0 15.0 8.0
4.Fréjus 4,875 14.5 11.9 2.6
5.Simplon 2,500 13.6 1.0 12.6

For an interactive map of the routes, check out my page about historic routes across the Alps.

Top 1 route – Brenner

The Brenner Pass is clearly the most important crossing today. Only when it comes to rail transport the St Gotthard route is more traveled.

In addition to being the top 1 route today, the Brenner route is the only one of the top 5 routes that actually crosses the mountains on a pass (at 1,370 m) and is the highest crossing of the five. The other route use tunnels – rail or road – at levels between 700 m (Simplon) and 1,300 m (Fréjus).

While there certainly are snow conditions on the Brenner Pass in winter, due to its relative low elevation and the importance of the route it is kept open all year.

The total numbers become even more impressive when you break them down.

There is a freight train crossing the pass every 12 minutes adding up to 120 per day.

There is a truck crossing the pass every 15 seconds adding up to 5,800 per day.

And there is a vehicle crossing the pass every 2 seconds; all year round.

Top 5 Routes Across the Alps
View of the busy Brenner Pass from above. The motorway, the railway and the old road converge on the highest point of the route (Haneburger, Brennerpass from north, excerpt von Jens Bunte, CC0 1.0)

It is more than understandable that this amount of traffic leads to discussion about how the impact to nature and people living along the route can be mitigated. In the Austrian state of Tyrol the approach route to the Brenner Pass runs more than 100 km through the most populous valley of the state, the Inn Valley. The vast majority of the traffic crossing the pass is also using the complete approach route on highway or rail. One of the solutions is to increase rail capacity and route traffic through the Brenner base tunnel being built – see below.

Top 5 routes across the Alps – Rail routes

The St Gotthard route takes first place in terms of rail transport. The numbers however do not include the capacity of the new Gotthard Base Tunnel, which was opened in December 2016.

This 57 km long tunnel crosses the Alps below the St Gotthard Pass at 550 m above sea level.

It has a capacity of 40 million tons per year and is longer than the Channel Tunnel from England to France (50.5 km). The base tunnel is part of a major Swiss project – started in 1998 – to shift transit traffic to rail transport. This includes intermodal transport to load trucks onto trains for the transit through Switzerland. The project called New Railway Link through the Alps (NRLA) includes two of our five top routes across the Alps- St Gotthard and Simplon. For both a low level, high capacity rail link is being built including improved feeder approaches.

There is a base tunnel being built at the Brenner Pass as well. With a crossing level of 800 m and a length of 55 km the Brenner Base Tunnel is scheduled for completion in 2028. Completing the list of base tunnels for our top 5 routes is the projected base tunnel on the Fréjus route. This Mont Cenis Base Tunnel will improve the Lyon-Turin rail link

Top 5 Routes Across the Alps
Tunnel boring machine during construction of the Gotthard Base Tunnel (Hannes Ortlieb (Diskussion), 20141120 gotthard-basistunnel02-wikipedia-hannes-ortlieb, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

Regional considerations

Currently, the most important transport link from France to Italy is the so called Ventimiglia corridor. It is the rail and road connection along the Mediterranean coast from Marseille and Nice to Genoa bypassing the Alps on a its own low level route.

While the freight volumes of today’s most frequented Alp crossing give an indication about the capacity of these transport routes, there is an interplay with the geographical demand: What are origin and destination of people and freight wanting to cross the Alps?

Here the top 5 routes across the Alps also give us some ideas. From West to East these routes generally funnel this traffic

  • Ventimiglia – From Spain and southern France to Italy

  • Fréjus – From central and northern France to Italy

  • St Gotthard / Simplon – From eastern France, Belgium and western Germany to Italy

  • Brenner – Netherlands, northern and south-eastern Germany to Italy

  • Tauern – Germany to Slovenia and Croatia, Austria to Italy

Routes across the Alps continue to be a central part of European transport infrastructure. Not only for Italy but also for the countries of the western Balkan region, they are the link to northern and western Europe.

The major transport corridors through the Alps have seen major engineering projects to enhance their capacity since the late 19th century: Railway tunnels, road tunnels, modern motorways with daring bridge constructions and the most recently low level base tunnels currently.

Some of the latest projects can hopefully give some relief to the regions where the heavy transit traffic is having a significant impact on the quality of life and the environment.

While most of the freight volume on road and rail is clearly passing through, a significant portion of the vehicle traffic are people visiting the Alps as tourists.

After all, the Alps have among the most spectacular landscapes in Europe and most routes across mountain passes have large numbers of visitors in the summer months enjoying the scenery.

Sources

The traffic numbers were used from the following sources:

Brenner – link

St Gotthard – link

Tauern – link

Simplon – link

Fréjus – link

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