For more than two decades, the European Union, France and Italy have been working on a colossal infrastructure project to build a €25bn high-speed railway line that could cut travel times between Milan and London by three hours.

Running from Turin in Italy to Lyon in France, the line is being built to help move freight off the road and boost trade relations between the two countries, as well as the rest of Europe.

First conceived in the late 1990s, the so-called Treno Alta Velocità (TAV) project will span 270km of track. Key to its success is a tunnel running for 57.7km through the Alps between the Piedmont region (where Turin is located) and southwestern France. About 80% of this tunnel, which is currently under construction, would run on French territory, while the remaining 20% is to be built in Italy.

However, in recent times, the project has been repeatedly hit by delays and risks coming to a standstill. The costs and benefits of the line – as well as its overall future – have also become the focus of political dissent in Italy during the past year.

Here, the two majority parties in power, Matteo Salvini’s Northern League and Luigi Di Maio’s Five-Star Movement, are at odds over the construction of the line. Divisions are also impacting Piedmont locals and have triggered a wave of demonstrations – both in favour and against the line – urging the government to take a stand.

With Italy’s position on the project still unclear and the 2030 deadline looming,  is the project in trouble?

The show must go on

As debates on the Turin-Lyon’s viability, economic and environmental impacts continue both in Italy and elsewhere across  Europe, works on the excavation of the tunnel have not stopped.

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“This is the biggest infrastructure project in Europe.”

As Stéphane Guggino, general representative of the Committee for the Transalpine Lyon-Turin, explains, a total of 25km of land has already been dug out. Of this, 8km forms part of the tunnel that will cross the Alps, while the rest will be used to create a set of galleries leading to it.

“The construction site continues to advance by about 15m-20m every day,” says Guggino, adding that what has already been built accounts for about 16% of the overall project and has cost around €1.5m.

“This is the biggest infrastructure project in Europe to date, probably the biggest railway tunnel in the world that is going to be built,” he continues. “The aim remains to start using the tunnel by 2030. In order to achieve that, however, there need to be no delays and we need to stop having all this political unrest.”

Political upheaval: tracking TAV disputes

The year 2030 may well be the aim, but in the past year, delays have become an almost daily occurrence and works have been carried out intermittently. This is primarily because while the project is mostly popular in France, its neighbours are divided by growing political frictions.

On one side of the spectrum, Di Maio’s populist party has long been lobbying against the project, saying funds could be better allocated to other initiatives.

“In order to stop the project, there needs to be a Parliamentary vote.”

Having sided with local Piedmont groups against digging through land at the foot of the Alps, they are pushing to stop the project. In March this year, PM Conte even temporarily put construction tenders for the tunnel on hold, though they were reopened shortly afterwards.

On the other side of the debate, however, are Salvini and all the other major parties in Italy. Supporting the claims of other campaigner groups based in Turin, these parties are loud advocates of the tunnel, which they argue would bring environmental benefits as well as support faster and more efficient travel for passengers and freight between France, Italy, and the whole of Europe.

But according to Guggino, the situation is far less desperate than it seems.

“The Five Star Movement is the only party in Italy to be against the Turin-Lyon. All the other political parties of the country – from the left to the right-wing ones – are in favour,” he explains.

He says that support for the project is also coming from labour unions, employers’ organisations and about 70% of the Italian population, according to polls.

As a result, construction works may have slowed down, but they’re nothing more than a delay – and therefore not damning – for the link. “At the end of the day,” he says, “in order to stop the project altogether, there needs to be a Parliamentary vote.

“But in Parliament, the Five-Star Movement doesn’t have the majority on this matter and it will not be able to approve this interruption.” The government will have to give a final decision to the European Commission by September this year.

Murky waters: indecision over project viability

Although Guggino explains these debates are primarily matters of political propaganda, experts and analysts have also failed to shed light on the viability of Turin-Lyon.

This is why to date, as many as seven different cost-benefit analyses have already been published on the subject, the last of which was commissioned to a group of six experts by the Italian Government.

“Political and academic frictions are impacting the progress of the tunnel.”

Published in February this year, the review concluded the line would not be profitable for Italy. Despite the EU pledging to provide half of the €25bn needed, the commission found that Italy would lose between €7bn-€8bn, and that these costs would naturally weigh on taxpayers’ shoulders.

But once again, the review was criticised  by Salvini and others, who accused it of bias and for using  inappropriate methodology that prioritised road transport over rail.

It’s clear that political and academic frictions are inevitably impacting the progress of the tunnel.

“Works are still continuing,” says Stefano Cianciotta, president of the Italian National Observatory on Infrastructure within Confassociazioni, a professional association. “But at rhythms that are much less dynamic because of the lack of proper support from the government.” 

Learning from previous infrastructure projects

Guggino compares the current status of the TAV project with the Channel Tunnel construction, where concerns over cost and environmental impacts were also common.

“Who, today, can say that it was a mistake? Nobody,” he says. “Of course, there were problems while it was being built but when you talk about infrastructure projects of these dimensions, you can only measure their benefits on the long term.”

Even from an environmental perspective, Guggino adds, the benefits might not be evident from the beginning, but will certainly be felt in years to come. “The  Lyon-Turin line will put a lot of freight on the railway instead of the road,” he says. “Today, some three million trucks cross the Italian-Franco border every year. At least half of it can be moved to the railway.”

Echoing his words, Cianciotta explains that delaying or interrupting works again may be devastating for both Italy’s international prestige and Europe’s economic development.

“This is not just about connecting Turin and Lyon, but actually creating the favourable conditions for the development of Europe,” he says. “Europe’s best chance at growth is shortening the distances between its biggest cities through infrastructure, and at the moment, linking Italy to northern regions is its best bet.”

With the goal still set on the 2030 deadline, Guggino assures that works on the site continue seamlessly and that the committee is confident that positive results are forthcoming. That is, however, provided that Italy’s divided government eventually decides to favour the TAV project. With friction affecting politicians, campaigner groups and the larger population in Italy, Europe’s new railway network is still hanging by a thread.