YEARS of negotiations between Switzerland and the European Union about transit freight culminated on January 23 with heads of agreement being signed after a final 6h session. Often acrimonious discussions centred on the conflicting wishes of the Swiss to protect their environment and the EU to eliminate a bottleneck to trade. Formal signature by EU transport ministers is likely on March 17, but ratification by the Swiss will require one, if not two referendums.

For years the Swiss have held out for their 28 tonne limit on transit lorries, but the new deal sees restrictions being progressively eased to permit virtually unrestricted access for 40 tonners from 2005. In return, the EU has agreed that Swiss road hauliers can undertake cabotage between EU countries, and that Swissair will get access to markets within the EU.

The Swiss will also levy a transit tax on each lorry; about SFr600 was demanded, but the final rates will range from SFr280 to SFr380 for 40 tonners, depending on emission levels and other factors. Lower fees apply to lighter lorries, and a quota of trips per year will apply during a transitional phase starting next year. SBB believes this level of fees is enough to prevent a major diversion of traffic from rail to road.

Swiss Transport Minister Moritz Leuenberger said the deal ’guaranteed’ the funding for the AlpTransit base tunnels and other rail investments. These include the second phase of Bahn 2000, a programme of noise protection measures costed at SFr2·3bn (RG 11.96 p747), and construction of a TGV link from Mâcon to Genève. Needless to say, it is not quite so simple. The first hurdle is a referendum, currently due in September, on the levying of fees for all lorries, not just in transit, that use Swiss roads. Two-thirds of the funds raised are destined for rail projects, but if this referendum should fail the funding of AlpTransit and the other schemes will again be in jeopardy. At least the EU deal confirms the principle of lorry charges.

A second referendum in November aims to settle once and for all how the major rail projects should be funded. The other source is likely to be a 0·1% increase in value added tax, which a parliamentary committee deemed on February 11 more likely to succeed than a 5 centimes per litre levy on petrol.

Just where all this leaves the 1994 referendum requiring transit freight to move by rail from 2004 (RG 4.94 p197) is not clear. Suffice it to say that taxing heavy lorries to pay for the very project that is designed to keep the same lorries off Swiss roads seems an extraordinary way forward. o