Why I Am Against TAV, The Lyon-Turin High-Speed Rail Link

By Michele Paolo

A lot of chatter has been heard about the high-speed rail link between Turin and Lyon. 6 points to shed light on the whole issue

1. What is the TAV project about?

TAV is the Italian acronym for treno ad alta velocità, high-speed train. It is a project concerning the high-speed rail link between Turin and Lyon which, according to the promoters of the infrastructure, should reduce journey times and increase load capacity of trains.

The line is divided into three sections, each one assigned to a different partner: the Italian part, from Turin to Susa, was conferred to RFI (the public company owning the Italian train lines); the French part, connecting Lyon to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, was assigned to SNCF, its French counterpart; the cross-border section, from Susa to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, was given to TELT, a corporation equally owned by the two governments.

The forthcoming line would be shorter than the already existing one (60 kilometers against 90), on a level road and straight. The project was born almost 30 years ago, when the Italian and French governments began discussions on a high-speed line. But it was only in 1994, at the European Council in Essen, that TAV gained public relevance, as it was included among the 14 most important transport projects of the whole European Community, winning in that occasion support from Brussels. In the following years, an intergovernmental conference and many agreements were established in order to deal with the track and the proceedings.

2. How much does it cost?

According to the French Court of Auditors and to the Commissioner for the Turin-Lyon line, Mr. Paolo Foietta, the project would cost at least 25 billion euros. On the other hand, many sources against TAV state that it is actually more expensive, as public works in Italy are endless and money-draining. Moreover, several popular committees have taken action to review the project or to take it down. As a consequence, it is hard to accurately calculate the costs.

There are more certain estimations for the cross-border section, as the recent memorandum of understanding signed in Venice in 2016, established a range of 8,4 to 8,6 billion euros. That expense should be divided among the two parties, as Italy would spend 57,9 percent of the sum, while France 42.1  percent. However, it is worth noting that the European Union plays an important role in this situation, as 40 percent of cross-border part is funded by the European institutions. Obviously, the EU will fulfil its committment as long as France and Italy will keep their words.

3. What if Italy drops TAV?

The contract between the two Italian government forces, the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, includes a provision on the basis of which the cabinet should re-assess the TAV project. But how much would a withdrawal cost?

It is difficult to determine the amount of money that Italy would spend in that case, as many parties claim that it is “highly unpredictable”. Although in principle no penalties should be given, due to the fact that procurement procedures have not started yet, France and the European Union could ask for a judicial compensation, according to Mr. Foietta. Moreover, it should not be understimated the fact that many disputes with the firms that are currently working would arise, pushing up costs. As all matters concerning withdrawal costs would be settled in tribunals, this brings a high grade of uncertainty. Lastly, it is worth noting that the construction sites should be closed or secured, increasing expenses.

4. Are there any advantages to building TAV?

The 2001 forecasts concerning the amount of goods moving between Italy and France stated that TAV is needed, owing to the fact that the level of trade would be soon too much for the already existing train line. Thus, we can say that there are no benefits at all for what the goods are concerned, as the volume of commodities has not increased during the last years, and this is not only for the 2008 financial crisis. Indeed, the fact that Italy and France are “mature economies” prevents a dramatic growth in trade. This assumption has been proven by statistics: the amount of commodities crossing the border in 2008 and nowadays these are about 44 millions of tons.

The same argument applies for passengers. Indeed, owing to the small number of people crossing the border, the enormous amount of money for TAV is not worth spending. So, only high-speed train travelers would be affected and passengers who use this means of transport represent a small percentage of people who move everyday across the border. According to the NO TAV movement, that money should be spent on the improvement of the existing Italian regional railways, which are affected by many problems, especially in the South. Last but not least, air transport is becoming cheaper and it is faster than high speed train, notably over long distances.

5. Are there any environmental consequences?

Every kind of human intervention on a natural landscape produces effects that should be evaluated on the basis of weighed up pros and cons. Although previous governments stated that there are absolutely no risks, public administration adopted a preventive approach aimed to prevent natural disasters. Thus, there are still five major issues to consider:

  • Air pollution caused by the construction sites;
  • The presence of asbestos, uranium and radon in some places where tunnels are carved;
  • Noise pollution produced by the construction activities and the transit of trains and cars;
  • Pollution of groundwater and springwater;
  • The storage of hazardous ores;

On one hand, it is difficult to support a project that brings so many risks. On the other hand, the exploratory tunnel of Maddalena di Chiomonte did not jeopardize the human environment, according to ARPA, the local public agency responsible for protecting the environment. The construction of the tunnel has been followed by ARPA step by step and did not point out critical issues. The same conclusion has been highlighted by the University of Turin, which carried out a study concerning the risks of the tunnel.

6. What conclusions can be drawn?

With all this in mind, I can say that in principle TAV should not be completed for its relevant downside. Indeed, although the environmental risks have been dismissed by many sources, there are other points that should be definitely taken into account. First, the huge amount of money spent on TAV is still disproportionate, compared to the quantity of goods and people potentially using the line. As a consequence, only few stakeholders would benefit from this colossal public work. Moreover, there are many critical infrastructures in Italy that still need inteventions and investments, especially railways in southern regions. If the Italian government can’t bring the South of Italy closer, it is difficult to envisage a future of economic and social development of areas that are hardly connected to the rest of the country.