ÖBB-Infrastruktur AG Takes Careful Approach to Koralm High Speed Rail Project
There’s a bottleneck in the Baltic-Adriatic rail line. Because longevity is expected in a high speed rail line, OBB Infrastruktur is rebuilding it to be environmentally friendly and to last.
In 1994, one year after formalisation of the European Union, the new EU government recognised the need for a strong transportation network across Europe. They anticipated that the network would promote stability in Europe, economic expansion, and sustainable mobility. To that end they developed a basic plan (expanded in 2004) that included an extensive railway network built by member countries.
Ten years later, a bottleneck had developed on the Baltic-Adriatic Axis (BAA). The entire line had already proven to facilitate economic growth in Eastern Europe, from Italy up to the north coast of Poland, while also enabling connection to Russian railroads. Therefore, removing the bottleneck, located on the Koralm Railway in south eastern Austria, was critical. And since the new line would run through the Austrian Alps, environmental sensitivity was also critical.
Since Austria joined the EU in 1995, it had become the 12th richest country in the world and took pride in its burgeoning green economy. In 2008 alone there were 2,000 new green jobs created, and Austria had acquired the richest concentration of clean-tech companies in Europe. Styria Province in the south east of Austria, was home to more than 150 clean-tech companies, including 12 world leaders, which collectively brought in €2.7 billion (US$2.9 billion). The bottleneck was in Styria Province.
Rather than upgrade the existing rail line, Austria decided to create a new high speed rail line south of it that would include the country’s second largest city of Graz on its route. They conducted a feasibility study for the new line in 1995. In 2002 they prepared an environmental impact assessment. In 2005 the Koralm project was officially added to Austria’s federal railway construction plans and construction started in 2008.
The entire project was designed and is being built by OBB Infrastruktur, a wholly owned Austrian government subsidiary, at an overall cost of €5.4 billion (US$5.8 billion). The new lines reroute the old railway from the north of Graz, through Graz, and west to connect to Klagenfurt. The project consists of 127 kilometres (79 miles) of double line railway, including the 32.9 km (20 mi) tunnel with an emergency bay in the middle, and two railway stations, all wired for energy supply. The whole system will be operational by 2023, running at 200 kilometres per hour (kmph) or 124 miles per hour (mph), with a potential speed of up to 250 kmph. OBB Infra has been careful to include a number of environmental considerations in its construction plans.
Electric trains produce far fewer CO2 emissions than any other method of transportation. The Austrian government measures rail emissions at just 4% of local truck traffic and 12% of car traffic. It anticipates the new rail line to take an additional 18 million tons of truck traffic off the road, 20-30% of car traffic off the road, and to be competitive with air traffic along the BAA route.
The project’s two railway stations are designed to flank the Koralm Tunnel – the Western Styria IC Station on the east and the Lavant Valley IC Station at the western end. Both stations have Park & Ride facilities planned, as well as facilities to receive future regional bus lines. The Lavant Station is being built to support 42 passenger trains and 86 freight trains per day, with a capacity for up to 200 trains per day. It serves as the current base of operations for construction.
To design the actual project itself and make sure it was acceptable, OBB Infra included input from each local community along its route, including political representatives, local authorities, interest groups, citizen action groups and NGOs. In response to community concerns, OBB diverted, rebuilt, and restocked a stream affected by the railway as a pilot project. Fish populations are already higher than before, so the same practice will be followed with other streams.
The company also took steps for bird protection, reducing and monitoring construction noise, directing lights carefully, and placing coverings over welding areas. They are carefully monitoring local woodlands and they’ve set up water monitoring stations, the results of all of which are fed into an extensive database.
To design the tunnel route through the Alps, OBB used GIS readings combined with core drills, to determine the nature of rock strata, radial deformation, the location of fault lines, and mountain water conditions. They conducted 130 core drills and mapped over 4,000 streams, springs, and wells.
Because the water table is shallow and the Koralm Tunnel will be built under it, there is a high risk of water seepage and resulting damage of tunnel walls. The water was tested to find a composition material for the walls that would be resistant – a dense layer of high pressure concrete (gunite), lined with an inner water-proofing shell, with additives that would counteract the wearing effects of the groundwater. OBB designed a special double-wall system that would divert water to drainage pipelines between the tracks, from which it will be tested, depolluted, and released into local waterways. The tunnel will also be lined with noise absorbing materials and fit with air ventilation shafts.
Outside the tunnel, construction noise is measured and minimised. Construction crews use low emission vehicles and machines to reduce air pollution, sprinkle roads and excavation areas to minimise dust, and transport dirt and rocks via enclosed conveyer belts to where it can be sorted and reused. A special sorting procedure ensures that all but 10% of the dirt and rocks dug out of the tunnel and elsewhere can be reused. Whatever material cannot be carried via the conveyor belt is transported by train, not trucks, thereby minimising CO2 emissions further. All of these actions are monitored by GIS and all data inserted into an information website accessible by project participants.
The tunnel will also be supplied with an extensive telecom system that includes emergency call boxes, video surveillance, loudspeakers, air current control, fire alarms, radio communications for train control, a cable system for public communication, signalling and tracking systems, and automatic emergency detection. All of this, plus the tracks themselves and the two train stations, will be fuelled primarily by renewable energy sources.
Once built and operational, the new railway should result in a sustainable economic increase of 0.3-0.6% per year for Styria Province, including cost savings from lower accidents, assuming it follows past trends. The line should also support an increase in the entire region’s economics of 0.1-0.3% per year, including the neighbouring areas of Slovenia, Slovakia, and Hungary. And it will facilitate a smoother flow of rail traffic from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic and back, and from Russia to both areas, further enhancing the economic benefits originally anticipated by the European Union.
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