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France and Italy to signal Alps tunnel go-ahead
http://globalelements.ft.com/ - News, Fred Kapner, Turin and Jonathan Birchall, Paris, January 29 2001 - France and Italy will on Monday approve preliminary plans for a 52km rail tunnel and high-speed train link under the Alps, in a joint agreement on transport strategy shaped by the impact of the disastrous 1999 fire in the Mount Blanc road tunnel.
Hailed by its backers as "the project of the century" and estimated to cost at least E6bn ($5.6bn), the proposed two-tube rail tunnel will be the centrepiece of a summit meeting in Turin today between Giuliano Amato of Italy's prime minister, and France's President Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin, the prime minister.
The two countries will agree to finance initial engineering studies on the project, which would form part of a E11bn high-speed route between Turin and the central French city of Lyons. If completed, the link would halve the journey time between the two cities from the current four hours.
While the Turin-Lyons link has been under discussion since 1994, the political impetus behind the scheme increased significantly after the Mont Blanc tunnel fire. The blaze, which started on a truck and killed 41 people, exacerbated French concerns over the use of the tunnel by heavy goods traffic.
The closure of the Mont Blanc route, which used to account for about half of total freight between the two countries, also greatly increased the number of trucks using the congested Alpine road passes.
However, the Italian government has been less enthusiastic about the project, and has been pressing for the reopening of the Mont Blanc tunnel to regular truck traffic as soon as possible.
"The Italians saw the Mont Blanc fire as an accident, while the French saw it as a catastrophe requiring a comprehensive review of the transport system across the Alps, tying into broader concerns about the environment," said one French official.
During a visit to Savoie on the French side of the Alps earlier this month, Mr Jospin spoke of the need "to find a new balance" between rail and road traffic, and said the government would seek to double the amount of freight carried by rail over the next 10 years, from about 10m tonnes currently. Roughly 50m tonnes of goods travel between the two countries each year, an amount expected to double in 20 years.
In Turin the two governments are expected to agree that the eventual reopening of the Mont Blanc tunnel in autumn should be accompanied by steps to control traffic.
They are also expected to agree to experiment with a new "roll-on roll-off" freight service on the existing train route between Lyons and Turin.
The proposed tunnel between St Jean-de-Maurienne in France and Sosa in Italy would be roughly the same length as the privately financed tunnel under the English Channel, which ended up massively over budget.
However, tunnelling through the fractured and difficult limestone geology of the Alps, rather than through the soft chalk under the channel, would represent a far greater engineering challenge.
The project has strong support from businesses and regional governments on both sides of the Alps, which argue that 40-45 per cent of the costs of the tunnel could be privately financed and recouped from passenger and freight charges. French politicians have suggested using revenues from other state-operated road tunnels linking the two countries to fund the new rail link.
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