76 III. Cultural Landscapes and Mixed Sites
World Heritage at Risk:
The Upper Middle Rhine Valley
Klaus Thomas, Elke Greiff-Gossen and Mario Pott, Bürgerinitiative Rheinpassagen
Fig. 1: The Upper Middle Rhine Valley WH Site. GNU FDL
The Rhine River has been an important traffic route since prehistoric times. Due to the exchange of economic and cultural goods, numerous villages and small towns have developed in a confined area, thus shaping this unique, distinctive and much praised landscape through the continuous interaction between human settlement and nature over a period of many centuries. In 2002, the Upper Middle Rhine valley was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The effects of modern traffic were already described in the documentation leading to the property’s inscription: “Especially in the narrow Middle Rhine valley, the railway lines and roads as traffic installations and sources of noise cause impairment to the landscape and urban development and have become a burden on the local population and on tourism.” The ICOMOS “World Report 2011-2013 Heritage at Risk on Monuments and Sites in Danger” demands action to reduce the noise level.
The effects of present and future traffic will have such a serious negative effect on the unique, universal value of this World Heritage site as to make immediate counter-measures absolutely essential.
The European Union has designated freight corridor A between Genoa/Lyon and Rotterdam/Antwerp through the World Heritage site of the Upper Middle Rhine valley as an essential traffic route of the “Trans-European Network (TEN)”. The Gotthard base tunnel has now been completed. From 2017 onwards, up to 600 trains will pass through it every day. With the completion of the New Transalpine Rail Link (NEAT), rail traffic will increase still further. The freight transport volume will double to about 40 million tonnes per year. Compared with 2002 (the year of the
valley’s inclusion in the World Heritage List), the number of trains going through the Middle Rhine valley will increase at least four-fold to a daily average of 600 trains. The “European Rail Traffic Management System (ERMTS)“ will provide the technical prerequisites for further acceleration of the railway traffic and for an even higher numbers of trains.
A proposal for building a new railway line to shift freight transport away from the Rhine valley has not been taken up by the German Federal Government.Fig. 2: Freight trains run through the entire Middle Rhine Valley night and day, such
as here in Hirzenach. Photo: Bürgerinitiative Rheinpassagen
Fig. 3: A slope near Boppard has been concreted in order to prevent further landslides. Photo: Bürgerinitiative Rheinpassagen
Freight trains regularly generate sound levels of 100 decibels or more. This enormous amount of noise is harmful to human health. Moreover, the vibrations caused by the heavy freight trains are detrimental to the environment. Two expert opinions published by the State of Rhineland-Palatinate in 2013 showed excessive vibrations of up to 120 times the permissible limits. These vibrations can also be measured at great heights. Therefore they will probably have an impact on the slopes of the Rhine valley and either by themselves or together with other factors may cause or contribute to landslides. Other measurement results have not yet been published, but would be required for taking preventive action.
Landslides endanger trains and roads. To protect the railway line from masses of loose rocks, the German railway company DB AG is building wire fences on a large scale throughout the entire World Heritage area. The slopes of the Rhine valley have been altered substantially by the addition of concrete foundations, huge support structures, and the extensive use of wire netting. The visual impact is enormous. The appearance of the historic towns and villages has already been severely affected by the construction of “noise barrier walls”.
Some of the freight trains transport considerable quantities of hazardous substances, such as gases, flammable liquids and explosives. An accident involving such goods could have disastrous consequences.
Proposed actions: The State of Rhineland-Palatinate must be requested to take immediate action to reduce the noise caused by rail traffic and to measure vibrations. A management plan must be established to stipulate the actions taken to reduce the environmental impact caused by the rail traffic, such as noise and vibrations, and to describe the effectiveness of such actions.
Middle Rhine bridge
The expert opinion prepared by RWTH Aachen to assess the traffic-related effect of a bridge across the Middle Rhine near St Goar was submitted to UNESCO in 2009. It examines and describes the effects of local traffic crossing the bridge. This assessment does not include super-regional traffic. However, it estimates a considerable increase in daily local traffic from the 2000 motor vehicles that use the current ferry service to 7000 motor vehicles moving across the bridge.
In 2017, the State of Rhineland-Palatinate renewed its plans for a bridge to be built across the Middle Rhine near St Goar. The aim is to add a new main East-West traffic artery to the traditional North-South route along the Rhine, and to integrate it into a super-regional road network. The intention is to send a major portion of the traffic flow on the main roads and motorways on the right bank of the Rhine via the Middle Rhine bridge, with the long-distance traffic network on the left bank and via the Hochmosel crossing already under construction with Luxembourg/Belgium, France and the North Sea harbours of Rotterdam and Antwerp. The expert opinion, the State Development Plan IV of Rhineland-Palatinate, and ICOMOS Germany all confirm this concept of a super-regional connection. All essential prerequisites for the new traffic artery have been completed. With the Rhine crossingFig. 4: Photo montage of the projected bridge across the Middle Rhine Valley, which is disputed for its many detrimental effects
on the integrity of the valley. Photo: Photo / Montage: Südwestrundfunk
via the Middle Rhine bridge near St Goar – St Goarshausen, the last gap will be closed.
A bridge with super-regional motorway traffic connections will lead to a significant increase in road traffic, especially trucks. In that case, the through roads in towns and villages along the Rhine must be classified as motorway-access roads with a high traffic volume. This contradicts claims about a local character for the bridge.
The expertise of RWTH Aachen from 2009 can no longer be used to assess the effect of a bridge across the Middle Rhine on traffic. This also applies to the environmental compatibility study and to the assessment of the bridge by an expert opinion concerning visual impairment (both expert opinions were previously submitted to UNESCO).
Proposed actions: Environmental pollution caused by road and rail traffic such as noise and vibrations must be reduced; they must not be allowed to increase any further.
For an assessment of the traffic-related effect of a bridge across the Middle Rhine, a traffic survey must be presented, which includes super-regional and international traffic, as well as an extensive environmental-compatibility study and description of the visual impact. The effects of concentrating rail and road traffic in a single traffic area must also be described.
Four ferries running about every 15 minutes currently connect the two river banks with each other in the World Heritage area of the Upper Middle Rhine valley. The ferry companies earn their income exclusively from ferry traffic. They receive no subsidies. If the motor vehicle traffic is transferred to a bridge, the ferry companies will no longer be able to cover their costs. The ferry services will then have to close down. The State Government has been informed of this.
With the end of ferry traffic, the entire volume of traffic along the 65-kilometre stretch of the river within the World Heritage area will be channelled exclusively across the bridge near St Goar. In this way, Rhine crossings would be restricted to motor vehicle traffic only. In the interest of the desired structural improvements, which are necessary to preserve World Heritage values, it is vital to improve the facilities for crossing the river rather than restricting them to a single bridge.
Proposed actions: Ferries are the backbone of traffic that crosses the Rhine and must be preserved on a long-term basis as an integral part of the World Heritage area. A longterm guarantee for the ferries is imperative in the interest of security for the ferry companies and should be granted without delay. The ferry service must be optimised (longer running hours). From a traffic-related and economic point of view, the optimised ferry service is, as a decentralised solution, considerably better for most local residents.
A regional mobility concept should be prepared as soon as possible to examine whether a bridge would improve living conditions and to ascertain who really needs a bridge and whether it would be compatible with World Heritage values.
Fig. 5: The entire plateau of the Loreley Rock, part of the historic cultural landscape, will be remodeled, with unclear effects. Photo: Photo Südwestrundfunk
Fig. 6: The visual integrity of the Loreley Rock, and the famous „postcard view“, are being severely impaired by the construction of an oversized stage and roof. Photo: Bürgerinitiative Rheinpassagen
In the course of remodelling the highland area (memorial zone) on the Loreley rock in 2000, the identified excesses of tourism were curbed in favour of a landscaping design compatible with the natural environment. Currently, work to remodel the plateau at the top of the rock has started again. A new hotel with 200 beds will be built on a site of 28.000 square metres. According to a visual impact study, the hotel will not be visible from the bottom of the valley. However, it will be in plain view from the neighbouring high points, such as Loreleyblick Maria Ruh and the Spitznack lookout point next to it, or from the high points of Urbar and Oberwesel, with the Oelsberg hiking trail and fixed-rope climbing route. The view from the edge of the cliff on the right bank of
the Rhine towards the Loreley over Katz Castle has been described as a “postcard view” of the Rhine valley. Whether or not it will be preserved has not been investigated.
New car parks and roads will be built, a panorama trail and a nature park are planned, and some old buildings have already been demolished. Several hundred trees will also be felled.
The combined considerations of protecting a historic monument and conserving nature, and the value to tourism of an intact cultural landscape, have so far protected the Middle Rhine valley from being subjected to radical change. The Loreley rock is the central point of the World Heritage area, enhanced by enchantment, the songs of Loreley, myths and fairy tales. Any further development of the rock requires utmost care. All changes must harmonise with the landscape and complement it. The plateau must not be sacrificed to zeitgeist. The project is accompanied by protests.
The new hotel building promoted by the State of Rhineland-Palatinate will further reduce the current utilisation rate of hotels in the Middle Rhine valley of only 36% and thus further weaken their financial strength for investing in modernisation. The new hotel building subsidised with state funds will contribute to the decay of settlements and slow down the development of tourism in the valley.
Proposed actions: A development plan with guidelines for long-term design must be prepared for the development of the Loreley plateau. It must include the definition of a future-oriented concept for structural interventions on the Loreley plateau. The obligations specified in the Rhine Valley Charter, to preserve, maintain and develop with great care the natural and cultural heritage of the Rhine valley, must also be included.