Protests bring Italian high-speed rail mega-tunnel to its knees

Credit: M. Revelli

High-speed rail has garnered a lot of praise recently. The U.S. has a new national high-speed network map. China has unveiled the world's longest high-speed line. Japan is beginning construction of their long-anticipated Maglev train line. But not all the news surrounding high-speed rail is so rosy.

20 years ago, the French and Italian governments agreed to excavate a 35-mile-long mega-tunnel through the Alps that would connect the two countries via high-speed rail, reducing travel time between Paris and Milan to just under four hours. That was then. Just now, with six miles of tunnel already completed on the French side, the Italian government has finally begun to dig. 

For the last two decades, protests and legal actions have halted any effort the Italian government made towards digging the tunnel. And, as a BBC reporter recently found out, the excavating of the tunnel has done nothing to mitigate protests. Last year, fences finally went up around the construction site. Digging had yet to begin, but the police were called in nonetheless. Protesters clashed with the police. In one day, 400 people were injured, but since then, bulldozers have begun to slowly etch their way through the mountains.

Still, progress has been all but nonexistant. Compared to the six miles cut by the French, the Italians have a pathetic 33 feet of tunnel to show for the last 20 years. Now, with the army on site, expectations of progress have risen. But the protesters have not relented. Faced with armored trucks and camoflage-clad troops, they nonetheless sling stones and document their side of the story with their own film crews.

All this is going on at a time when the beleaguered European Union is looking for ways to cut its budget. At a cost of $17 billion, the tunnel has begun to look like a low-hanging fruit to the E.U. budgeting committee. 

There is a lesson here. The U.S. is contemplating embarking upon its own $500 billion national rail project. If a handful of protesters wielding slingshots can derail (just the one pun this time, I promise) the behemoth that is European high-speed rail, what opposition might our own nation face from those who do not share the vision of a national high-speed rail system?


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