Over the years, the European Union has become an open, and to a certain extend unified economy with ever increasing international transport rates. Although transport by rail or water is becoming increasingly cheaper and are important transportation modes, a lion’s part of Europe’s transportation still takes place on the road. European countries, especially those in the western part of the continent, have a very extensive road network that includes thousands of kilometres of highways and secondary roads. In order to keep up with growing trade, and therefore, growing traffic flows, roads often have to be extended and many new roads are opened every year. Because of the uneven landscapes in many parts of the continent, the construction of new infrastructure often comes with expensive constructions, such as tunnels and bridges.
Two of Europe’s major transit countries are situated right in the continent’s biggest mountain range. Switzerland and Austria, as you may know, are located in central Europe, right in between two of the continent’s biggest economies: Germany and Italy. These, among other countries nearby, are all involved either in the European Union itself or through other trade treaties. This makes transportation through the Swiss and Austrian Alps less expensive and less time consuming. Traffic flows through the area increase year after year, which makes an extensive and up to date infrastructure network required to make sure all transportation takes place in a safe, secure and relatively fast manner. The mountainous character of these countries makes it necessary to build big infrastructure projects, such as bridges and tunnels. This is done to make sure that transportation time decreases rapidly, and more traffic can be handled by these countries.
Over the past decades, Switzerland and Austria have completed a long range of complicated infrastructure projects. This includes the famous Gotthard rail tunnel in central Switzerland and the Brenner Autobahn pass between the Austrian city of Innsbruck and Italy’s Verona, among other, less famous projects. One of those less famous projects is the Austrian Geinalmtunnel. Although it may not be as well-known as other tunnels, it is one of the longest tunnels of the Alps and part of an important corridor from the northern part of Austria to the south. The corridor, the highway A9 between the cities of Wels and Graz, is part of the European numbered route E59 between the Czech Republic and Croatia, though it is also used by traffic coming from Germany to south-eastern Austria, Hungary, and the Balkan region.
The Gleinalmtunnel was first opened in 1978, built as an eight kilometre tunnel featuring just one tube. With increasing traffic flows over the following decades, main roads connected to the tunnel were extended, resulting in a highway featuring at least two lanes in each direction. Meanwhile, the tunnel itself remained a one-tube tunnel with just two lanes (one in each direction). This led to traffic jams on both ends of the tunnel, especially at the notorious ‘Black Saturdays’, during which high numbers of tourists from north-western Europe travel to warmer countries in the south of the continent.
Apart from traffic jams, a number of big incidents at the beginning of the century eventually led to the decision to extend the tunnel from one to two tubes in 2013. This would allow more traffic in the tunnel, and would make the tunnel safer because the two traffic flows would be separated. The same extension had been built in many other tunnels in the Alps, including the nearby Tauern Tunnel, which was completed in 2011. The famous Swiss Gotthard road tunnel will be extended to two tubes as well, with construction works starting as early as in 2020.
The second tube of the Gleinalmtunnel was completed at the 21st of July 2017. However, because of additional maintenance works in the original tube, the full capacity of the tunnel won’t be used until 2019. This includes a long range of safety measures to comply with strict national and European regulations on tunnel constructions. The tunnel will be featured with 34 escape routes, as well as eight different safety locations for cars with mechanical trouble. At both tunnel entries, electronic road signs will inform travellers about the current traffic situation in the tunnel. Also worth mentioning is a height checking system for trucks, to avoid accidents with trucks that end up hitting the roof of the tunnel.
After completion of all construction works, Austria will officially have its second largest highway tunnel opened for the public. This should allow for more comfortable and safer travel kilometres, thanks to by decreasing traffic jams and hopefully less incidents.
Top photo: the Gleinalmtunnel as a one-tube tunnel. By Philipp Strahl, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17297671