Italy's leaders spar over high-speed rail project

The future of Italy’s coalition government rests upon the completion of a high-speed rail tunnel to France, as the two factions use the project to determine the country's governing ethos: populism or pro-business?

Antonio Calanni
Engineers operate a 450-foot-long rock-eating machine called 'Federica' in a Turin-Lyon high-speed rail tunnel (TAV) in Saint Martin La Porte, France, on Feb. 12, 2019. The project is part of a continent-wide attempt to improve high-speed rail connections, but political divisions within Italy have stalled work on the tunnel, which has long been stymied by sabotaging protesters.

A strategic European Union project to build a high-speed rail tunnel through the Alps, meant to speed journeys between France and Italy, could dead-end as Italy's populists squabble.

On the French side, a 460-foot long rock-eating machine tunnels through the mountainside toward Italy at an average rate of nearly 66 feet a day. But on the Italian side, all is quiet: the construction site, long targeted by sabotaging protesters, is guarded by four law enforcement agencies, and work is limited to maintenance.

The survival of Italy's increasingly shaky populist government could well depend on whether Italy restarts construction on the Turin-Lyon High Speed Train link, which it halted last summer. One party in the ruling government coalition is fiercely against the project, while the other is for it.

Italy's internal standoff – pitting the 5-Star Movement, which has taken a stand against big infrastructure, against its pro-business League coalition partner – means France could wind up with a tunnel to nowhere. The uncertainties are also increasing tensions with the European Union, which is paying for 40 percent of the 8.6-billion-euro project.

The 35.7-mile long Turin-Lyon High-Speed Train tunnel link, known in Italy as TAV, is a key part of an EU project linking southern Spain with eastern Europe. It's envisioned as one of six tunnels crossing the Alps, including the Gottard Tunnel in Switzerland, which opened in 2016, and the Brenner Tunnel between Italy and Austria, scheduled to open in the next decade.

The Turin-Lyon link replaces a tunnel built in 1871, which officials say is outdated in terms of technology and safety. High-speed trains must slow down to about 37 mph an hour – making the journey from Milan to Paris seven hours. With the TAV high-speed train tunnel, the journey will be cut down to 4 1/2 hours.

The Italian government's commissioner for the Turin-Lyon line said the arguments within the coalition over the tunnel have gotten "surreal."

"The 5-Star ministers have all refused to come see the construction site, simply so they can deny that it exists," said Paolo Foietta.

At the heart of the issue is that the 5-Star Movement's identity as a protest movement is tied to the No-TAV campaign, and the 5-Stars' credibility has been shaken by its approval for several other major infrastructure projects that it previously opposed.

The movement's founder, comic Beppe Grillo, joined the front line of the No-TAV protests back in 2010. And when the 5-Stars first won seats in Parliament in 2013, newly minted lawmakers made a pilgrimage to the Val di Susa, near the border with France, birthplace of the No-TAV movement.

"If they betray this battle, they betray themselves," said Mario Cavagna, an environmental engineer and activist. "We taught them something [about developing a movement.] We don't know yet if they learned well what we taught.... We have a lot of hope but a healthy distrust."

The No-TAV movement, founded by activists, can claim some victories for forcing considerable delays on the Italian side of the tunnels – where construction only started in 2013 compared to 2002 in France – as well as changes in the tunnel's opening. But they aren't counting on the 5-Star Movement to win the war for them.

"No government is our friend," Mr. Cavagna said.

The 5-Star Movement frequently asserts that the tunnels don't exist in Italy. On the French side, three access tunnels have been built plus over 4 miles of main tunnel. On the Italian side, just one access tunnel 4 miles long has been completed, bringing the total length of tunnels completed so far at nearly 19 miles, or about 15 percent of the total, with the project slated for completion by 2030.

Italy risks losing 813 million euros in EU funding if it doesn't launch the next phase – 1.9 billion euros worth of contracts – by the end of 2019, Mr. Foietta said. And both the EU and France could seek damages from Italy if the project is blocked entirely.

Foietta, whose five-year-term expires Friday, says he expects the office that plays an important liaison role to be left unoccupied, another sign of the government's "playing ostrich," he said.

European Commissioner Violetta Bulc says the TAV is an important project not only for Italy and France, but for Europe as a whole.

An EU official said that the project needs clarity by early summer, as money would have to be reallocated if the TAV does not move forward.

The 5-Stars insist the costs of the project outweigh the benefits – though its analysis released this week has been criticized for methodology, for example counting such figures as lost taxes on gas for road trips substituted by the rail, and for over-estimating technological advancements in cars and trucks.

The analysis was greeted coldly in France, where the transport minister says Paris remains in favor of the project.

Officially, the European Union has no Plan B. But if the Turin-Lyon line is not built, a possible alternative would be a link running along the German-Swiss border, cutting off Italy and its exporters, Foietta said.

"Above all, Italy will be penalized," Foietta said. "This project is tied to a revolution that is coming in the transport system," which foresees moving commercial traffic to the rail roads, reducing highway traffic and carbon emissions, as well as transport costs.

League leader Matteo Salvini, who is also Italy's interior minister, relies on the support of northern Italian entrepreneurs, who want the TAV. His support for the project puts him at odds with his 5-Star allies, as tensions ramp up head of the European Parliament election in May, when both parties will be jockeying to realign the power balance within the coalition.

"The only thing not imaginable is that the work of these workers for these [4 miles] of tunnel is in vain, and if Italians' money is spent to go deep down inside, only to turn back," Mr. Salvini said during a recent visit to the tunnel construction site.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Italy's leaders spar over high-speed rail project
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today