A TGV train at Lyon's Perrache Station. Reuters Pictures/Robert Pratta

The link will slash journey times, but many locals loathe it with a passion.

After 15 years of wrangling, a new high-speed rail line from France to Italy was at last confirmed to be on its way this week.

Following an agreement on costs signed yesterday, a new TGV link will join France’s second city of Lyon with Turin, Italy, via a new 57-kilometer (35-mile) tunnel burrowed underneath some of Europe’s highest mountains. When the line is ready in 2028, it will slash journey times between the cities and provide a greatly improved, less polluting transalpine freight corridor. Joining up to France’s existing high-speed network, it should also allow passengers to reach Paris from Milan in a mere four hours.

That’s all impressive, but the most striking aspect of the new high-speed project so far is something else: Green groups and many residents of the regions flanking the new tunnel site loathe it with a passion. Since preliminary work began in 2014, that opposition has spilled over into heated national debate, sabotage, court cases, and prison sentences. Even yesterday, when an agreement apportioning costs was signed in Venice by French President François Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, police had to fight back boatloads of smoke grenade-throwing protestors with water cannons.

In a world where high-speed rail is normally cast as the good guy—a cleaner, greener alternative to the emissions splurge of cars and planes—this uproar is something of a shock, particularly given the line’s potential benefits. For passengers, the journey from Lyon to Turin currently takes three hours and 53 minutes at its fastest. When the high-speed link is completed, it will take just two hours, while the Paris-Milan journey will go from seven hours to four. The effect on freight transit across Europe could be still greater. Across the Alpine region, the limited number of easy routes through the mountains tends to create heavy traffic along a few valleys and passes.

Currently 80 percent of transalpine road traffic between Italy and France passes through a single tunnel, one that also funnels many trucks en route to and from the Iberian Peninsula. Jams commonly build up around this bottleneck, and locals have to contend with 1.3 million trucks annually. A rail line already crosses this territory but it is slower and less direct than the new link, and has limited capacity. Streamlining the existing rail route would allow the possibility of longer trains and could relieve a lot of pressure on France’s alpine roads. Charging a toll for trucks could both encourage rail use and provide some funding. Who could possibly object?

Quite a few people, turns out. The first issue is the huge cost. The entire project has an estimated budget of €26 billion ($28.7 billion), at least 60 percent of which must be supplied by Italy and France, with the remainder coming from the EU. At a time of Europe-wide austerity programs, that’s a huge amount of cash to find. According to opponents, this price tag means that the money needed for each single kilometer of track would be enough to build a 60,000-square-meter (6.5 million square foot) hospital.

High-speed rail protestors demonstrating in Italy’s Valle de Susa. (Flickr/Corteo no Tav)

Opponents also claim that the cost-benefit analysis used to justify this expense is shaky. One pressure group from the Italian side of the mountains says that the link will carry an estimated 19.1 million tons of freight on the new railway. Given that the current unimproved rail tunnel cleared just 3.3 million tons of freight in 2014, that seems an extremely optimistic estimate of future growth, even given the future link’s greater attractiveness, they contend.

Meanwhile, passenger traffic may not be very high, either. Even factoring in airport transfers, flying from Paris to Milan still takes slightly less than four hours. Although trains may well come to dominate the less significant Lyon-to-Turin route, the line may struggle to attract riders taking longer journeys.

So angry have Italian opponents been that they’ve attacked the project with genuine militancy. Supporters of the No Tav (“No High Speed,” in Italian) movement have sabotaged preliminary works near the tunnel’s mouth several times, bombarded the work site with fireworks, and been hauled into court under anti-terrorism laws.

Part of the anger behind the No Tav movement lies in its general disaffection with Italy’s corruption. Opponents of the line believe that key beneficiaries will be not ordinary Italians but shady forces in the construction industry. They may be right in part. According to a 2014 report by trans-European TV network Arte, four companies working on the project have been found to have links with the ‘Ndràngheta organized crime network.

The protestors have sparked a powerful official backlash. High-profile actor and political activist Beppe Grillo received a four-month prison sentence in 2014 for sabotaging work at the tunnel. When writer Erri De Luca said last year that vandalizing the high-speed line would be a legitimate act of protest, he also faced criminal charges, from which he was acquitted last October.

Opposition has also been voiced in France, albeit it with somewhat less intensity. Green Party representatives in the neighboring Rhone-Alpes region have complained that the project started as a sensible new solution for freight but later bloated into an unjustifiable high-speed project, influenced in part by the region’s (subsequently failed) bid to make the mountain city of Annecy host for the 2018 Winter Olympics. They also suspect that even the high €26 billion price tag may be an underestimate, and that the state will be dragged into further expenditure on a link whose economic benefits are arguably hazy.

Despite these objections, the high-speed project now looks set to go ahead. If the polluting effects of its construction period are carefully managed, then it should eventually be successful in cutting carbon emissions and ensuring that more passenger and freight traffic between France and Italy goes by rail. But will these benefits ever justify the huge expense?

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