Soldiers and armed police patrol the woods, the region’s walls sport angry-looking graffiti. Welcome to the Suse valley in Italy, where a transalpine rail tunnel project has some locals up in arms.
The future Franco-Italian high-speed rail link from Turin includes a 57-kilometre-long tunnel from here into the Maurienne valley in France, and on to Lyon.
We could not film in the exploratory tunnel that is being carved out, such is the climate of mistrust that has developed here over years of resistance to the scheme. In fact, it was hard to get pictures anywhere onsite because of the high security.
But Luca Giunti found us a narrow track through the mountains. He knows this terrain by heart. He is a park ranger, and fiercely anti-tunnel.
“The financial, energy and environmental costs are so high it’ll never make any money. The investment won’t make a profit. Over the last 20 years freight and passenger traffic between France and Italy has constantly declined,” he says.
The antis say the existing line is good enough or could be upgraded and are calling on the EU to withdraw its promised financial aid.
Another major worry is the groundwater supply, and the local’s fears the construction will affect the water table, cutting their villages off.
“In the plans tunnel building requires 1000 litres of water per second, or consumption equivalent to a city of one million people,” says Marco Scribona.
The Mayor of Suse supports the project. After discussions with the project engineers she feels the risks are manageable, and the economic advantages will materialise.
“We hope that as soon as the governments have agreed Suse will get an international railway station, and that will give the town a real chance of economic development,” says Gemma Amprino.
It is a position shared by Modane’s Mayor on the French side of the tunnel. Here it is the lorry that is the enemy, and the train is a blessing for the narrow valley and its fragile ecosystem. It will also help the chronically underdeveloped economy.
“What’s important is finding work right now. This big project, for both of our valleys, will be a breath of fresh air for the next 10 to 15 years,” claims Jean-Claude Raffin.
The Lyon-Turin line is a key piece of the EU’s planned high-speed rail network say its supporters, a priority project linking Lisbon to Budapest and, in the long term, on to Kiev.
A pipe dream say people like Emmanuel Coux who writes a French anti-tunnel blog. He argues the lack of crossborder traffic means no new tunnel is needed, especially as the old one has just been modernised.
“When I hear people saying the old line’s worn out, well…I don’t know what to say. Some sections have been completely rebuilt as new, like this bridge, and a new line will be extremely expensive. 25 billion euros buys 500 new hospitals, and the French Public Accounts Committee has already established it won’t make money,” he insists.
Despite the Committee report, which slammed the projects’ costs spiralling from 12 to 26 billion, the President of the French Rhone-Alpes region is all for it, and is ready for a scrap.
“Trade is going to grow, not only between France and Italy but Mediterranean and Danubian Europe. Today in France only 10% of transalpine freight goes by rail. In Austria it’s 35%, and in Switzerland it’s 65%. Railways are the future, the future for safe trade,” says Jean-Jack Queyranne.
Back through the Frejus tunnel to Italy to meet the Italian government’s special commissioner for the Lyon-Turin project. He says the heavy work should begin in 2014, politics and finance permitting.
“Trains are competitive, cheap and profitable when they run on the flat, not in mountains. So you need a low-level tunnel. Today trains have to climb 1300 metres before going through, which needs three locomotives for each train. That’s not competitive,” says Mario Virano.
The existing line was opened in 1871, three times steeper than the proposed new one and its low-level tunnel, and 60 percent more expensive to run than a sealevel line.
Italy is France’s second-biggest economic partner, yet the access costs to its neighbour’s markets are the highest in Europe. Patrick Mignola imports tiles from Italy. This French businessman and Mayor set up near a ferroutage, or rolling highway station in La Ravoire near Chambéry, but he does not use it. Why?
“We tried it a few years ago, but the system’s not organised. There’s not enough Franco-Italian traffic to drive it reliably. So because there’s not enough trade, no Turin-Lyon high-speed line, no low-level tunnel, the transporters organise things accordingly,” he concludes.
Tunnel supporters admit transalpine traffic has dropped because of the economic crisis, but insist minds should focus on 2025 when the tunnel is due to open, and new growth is no longer just a hope.
Passengers will also appreciate the time savings.
In 20 years time Lyon to Turin will take under two hours. Travel times from Paris to Venice, or Milan to Barcelona will be halved.
But back in one of the Suse valley’s villages Alberto, who has restored an old house and turned it into a bed and breakfast agrees with the President of the Mountain Communities. The priority should be investment in anti-earthquake projects, schools, and hospitals.
“It’s like buying a Ferrari to nip down to the shops for some bread quicker, but when you get there you’ve no money to buy any. That’s what’s wrong with this project,” says the former mayor of Susa Sandro Plano.
“I don’t think our economy can grow eternally. More, more, always more; more trade, and quicker. But it doesn’t work,” maintains Alberto.
On the French side the access tunnels are already built, and the builders are raring to go. But for the hardcore Italian opponents of the project it all boils down to one simple question.
Will they accept the decision of the democratically- elected and mandated French and Italian governments, in the name of the public good? The answers are blunt.
“What democracy? They’ve drawn some lines on a map in an office somewhere and called that a democratic decision. Our rulers decide and we don’t even get a say? We are the ones who live here!” rages Piera Gagnor.
“There are plenty of ways of opposing this tunnel. We can disrupt, set up roadblocks and pickets, stop the lorries going in and out of this building bunker they’ve built here,” says Gianmarco Moschietto.
The plan is bitterly disputed, and 800 million euros have already been spent. Will they be written off and the line abandoned, or will it forge ahead? The coming months will be decisive for this European project.