Plans to build a high-speed train line from the Turin, in Northern Italy, under the Alps to the French city of Lyon have been a source of bitter contention between local residents, environmental activists and successive Italian governments for over 20 years. Now the Treno Alta Velocità, or TAV’s development looks set to move forward under new impetus from Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, who reportedly maintains a strongly held belief that the line is vital to the area’s economic rejuvenation, in spite of opponents’ fears that the railway will damage the mountain ecosystem and pose health concerns as drilling would release asbestos and uranium currently held within the rock.
The length of the battle over the TAV demonstrates just how tricky the issue is. Europe’s high-speed rail network is a largely fantastic, environmentally friendly system. It transports large numbers of people and freight throughout the continent, easing pressure on roads and as a result lowering carbon emissions from vehicles. The Turin to Lyon line is one of the last stages of that network, and France has already constructed their end that connects the TGV to the 35-mile Italian under-Alp line.
Proponents claim that there are positive environmental impacts to be gleaned from a high-speed line in this location: they suggest that transferring freight from roads to rail could, by 2035 bring about a “reduction of toxic substances in the atmosphere by about 700,000 tons per year.” But these claims do little to allay concerns that drilling underneath the majestic, ecologically important Susa Valley and Alps could have a near-term devastating impact on the area. While some have claimed that the harmful asbestos and uranium-carrying dust could be cleared in the course of construction, others fear that it will bring about a range of health problems in the local population.
A similar tunnel was drilled through the Swiss Alps to provide high-speed rail access. Hailed as a feat of engineering that would provide a boost to the Swiss economy, the project also claimed the lives of eight workers.
Claims of the economic revitalization that the line could bring have also failed to convince many. One of the activists protesting the development, Doriana Tassotti, told the BBC that “All the data shows that it’s sheer madness to build this line, it’s simply not necessary because the existing railway works perfectly fine. The number of passengers and the quantity of goods being carried on it is falling. And if you really want to travel to Paris these days it’s cheaper to fly anyway.”
As activists, many affiliated with the NO TAV movement, continue to be arrested in the area, the Guardian reports there are signs that Monti’s government is set to push ahead with the railway as “[o]fficials are due to expropriate a stretch of sloping grassland near the Alpine village of Chiomonte, outside Turin, where work will begin on Italy‘s side of the border. The first planned excavation is of an access tunnel to allow geologists to test conditions.” The results of these tests appear unlikely to have an impact on the significant and longstanding concerns of many in the area.