Protecting against natural hazards.
Rockfalls, avalanches, debris flows. Many natural events pose a danger to us humans. Zentralbahn invests a lot of money into protecting against natural hazards. Two experts explain how to handle the dangers.
Briinigsflüö and Nessligenblätz are the names of two problem locations between Brünig-Hasliberg and Meiringen. Located directly above the Zentralbahn route, they are steep, rocky and unpredictable. “Anyone travelling through the Alpine region is inevitably exposed to danger”, says Christoph Jeckelmann Imhof, geologist and the person responsible for the environment and natural hazards at Zentralbahn. “More than half of the Zentralbahn network is exposed to potential natural hazards.” The Brünig line, for example, has been interrupted on average at least once a year by rockfalls and avalanches over the last century.
Heavily invested in safety
At Zentralbahn, safety takes top priority. For this reason, the company invests a lot of money into protecting against natural hazards. Over the last five years alone, its has spent 11.5 million francs on repairs and the construction of new protective structures. But because the implementation of structural measures is very expensive and not all hazardous areas can be sustainably protected with steel and concrete, the company is increasingly focusing on organisational measures as well as monitoring and alarm systems. Zentralbahn focuses primarily on prevention, says Jeckelmann Imhof. “We can’t allow events to get ahead of us. That’s why we have to act and not simply react when the tracks are buried or flooded.”
A holistic approach
Since 2017, Zentralbahn has followed the Confederation’s approach of integrated risk management. This holistic approach takes into account all natural hazards, includes everyone affected, and optimally combines all types of measures. This ensures, among other things, that the measures are environmentally justifiable and economically proportionate “and that we are not just blindly concreting everything,” as geologist Jeckelmann Imhof says. The main goal of natural hazard risk management is protecting human life and reducing property damage as much as possible. “This is a big challenge,” admits Jeckelmann Imhof, “because nature cannot be controlled with simple solutions.”
Build and monitor
In order to ensure safe operations, Zentralbahn has implemented a comprehensive package of measures in recent years. On the Brünig south ramp alone, safety against falling rocks and blocks has been sustainably improved since 2022 by building 33 new protective structures. New protective nets and an embankment have been constructed over a length of more than 1,400 meters, which can catch and contain high-impact falls. Sophisticated detection and alarm systems have been installed near Kaiserstuhl and along Lake Brienz to better protect the railway line and road from avalanches. These technical systems cannot prevent an avalanche from destroying a bridge, for example. But they ensure that people are protected by allowing traffic to be stopped in time in the event of an avalanche. Zentralbahn also promotes the maintenance of protective forests in specific areas, which is the most effective long-term investment to protect against natural hazards. Not least of all, the success of any measure depends largely on the maintenance employees involved. Regular training and internal knowledge transfer are therefore key components of prevention.
Still a challenge
Zentralbahn has become significantly safer thanks to integrated risk management and various other measures. “We’ve been able to sustainably reduce natural risks in recent years,” says Christoph Jeckelmann Imhof happily. “But there’s always a risk because nature cannot be completely tamed. That’s why dealing with natural hazards is a demanding, ongoing task.” The philosophy is not “nothing should ever happen again”, but “what protection can we provide and at what price?”
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