Monday, 5 March 2012

France and Italy ride out the storm

LGV Rhin-Rhone opened in December, France has four other high speed lines now under contract or construction. Credit: Alstom
Outside what the French like to term ‘the Anglo-Saxon world’, high speed rail came of age a long time ago. Now an internationally-proven, increasingly-modular technology, it comes as little surprise to see investment continue even as the austerity agenda bites.

To reinforce this point, two significant growth spurts are expected later this month. On March 23, SNCF plans to introduce a TGV service between Frankfurt and Marseille, a distance of around 1000 km. The route has been launched on the back of the opening in December 2011 of France’s latest high speed line: LGV Rhin-Rhone runs for 140 km across eastern France linking Dijon with Belfort, with extensions planned to reach Lyon and Mulhouse. This axis is profoundly significant because of its pan-European implications: a raft of competing long-distance trains is proposed from Germany to destinations in southern France and into Spain, and vice-versa.

Those ‘Anglo-Saxons’ who maintain the pretence that high speed rail is some kind of economic basket case have taken scant interest in the Rhin-Rhone project for obvious reasons. For a start, the line serves no dominant capital city, meaning by definition that the proven economic benefits of improved regional transport can only accrue to local centres such as Dijon and Besancon. By extension, the notion that high speed rail needs a single dominant economic centre to deliver a viable business case is severely dented. Second, international passenger rail services such as Frankfurt – Marseille cannot be subsidised under the legal terms of the European Commission’s rail market directives. Thirdly, the comparatively short section of new-build infrastructure – designed for 360 km/h with an operating maximum of 320 km/h – illustrates immediately how, in connecting two disparate pre-existing networks; high speed rail is anything but ‘standalone’.

NTV: the red-blooded challenger. Credit: Alstom
In Italy, meanwhile, private ‘open access’ high speed passenger trains are expected to be launched by Nuovo Trasporti Viaggiatori this month. Running from Milan to Naples via Rome on infrastructure manager RFI’s proven Alta Velocita-Alta Capacita network, NTV’s trains will compete head to head with state railway Trenitalia. By definition, NTV will receive no public subsidy, hence the operator – which is headed by Ferrari F1 Chairman Luca di Montezemolo – has spent many months tailoring its offering to market needs. Critical to its success of course will be its novel rolling stock: as has been widely reported, NTV is the launch customer for Alstom’s AGV trainsets; the AGV is also the ‘reference train’ for the HS2 modelling in the UK.

Offering a service that the company promises to be ‘fast, agile and fun’, NTV’s debut may however have to compete for column inches with the salutary stories emerging from the Susa valley on Italy’s northwestern border. A series of occasionally violent skirmishes has broken out amid the so-called ‘No TAV’ protests against planned construction of a new railway between Turin and Lyon in France. Some media reports have asserted that the Susa protestors reflect a rejection of high speed rail by Italians, but – as NTV’s emergence illustrates -- this is palpable nonsense.

Now forming (literally) the spine of the country, the north-south AV-AC route has been more than four decades in the making, as construction of a dedicated fast line between Florence and Rome began in the mid-1960s. Progress was at times glacially slow, but nevertheless the high speed rail programme has survived Italy’s notorious political instability, such that even in the current economic gloom, contracts continue to be let to reshape the ‘spine’ as a ‘T’ by extending the network from Milan towards Genoa and Venice.

The Lyon – Torino Ferroviaire project however is hardly a high speed rail link in the accepted sense of the term, as the railway would primarily be used for transit freight between the two countries. At the heart of the scheme is a vast 57 km Base Tunnel under the Alps: longer than the Channel Tunnel, it is only directly comparable to the equally massive trans-Gotthard programme in Switzerland. Interestingly, the Swiss equivalent has garnered little if any visible objection, perhaps because it is backed by a national referendum which allocates funding to remove trucks from the country’s motorways.

But the Swiss story brings its own lessons for outside observers, and that is another post for another day…

No comments:

Post a Comment