Protests against new high-speed train turn ugly

 Protests against the construction of a new high speed train line linking the cities of Lyon, France and Turin, Italy are escalating, even as construction begins on the Italian side of the border. Our Observer tells us why he fiercely opposes the train line. 


An anti-train line protest in Rome on February 27. Photo published on Twitter by @AteneinRivolta.


Protests against the construction of a new high-speed train line linking the cities of Lyon, France and Turin, Italy are escalating, even as construction begins on the Italian side of the border. Our Observer tells us why he fiercely opposes the train line.


Anti-train protesters oppose the construction of the train line for a number of reasons, notably its ecological and economic impacts on the areas it will run through. While some of the protesters demonstrate peacefully, others have resorted to vandalism.


Anti-train protesters have come under suspicion after electric cables were sabotaged Saturday on a train line near Chambéry, in southeast France. Earlier last week, protesters sabotaged a train line in Lyon. Meanwhile, across the border, others violently clashed with police in the Italian town of Chianocco. Two dozen policemen were reportedly injured in the clashes as they tried to remove protesters who had been blocking a highway for three days. Three protestors were also injured, and five were arrested.


The escalating violence has sparked concern that opposition to the train line is radicalising, after nearly twenty years of peaceful but fruitless protests on both sides of the border. In late February, Italian secret services warned authorities against what they say is increasingly dangerous rhetoric on the part of “revolutionary anarchist” anti-train campaigners in the Susa Valley, near the French border. Police also noted the presence in protests of members of the “black bloc” movement, which advocates violent action against symbols of capitalism.


Tensions are expected to rise even more as the government starts buying out land along the train line’s projected path. Protesters are prepared for this: in September 2008, 1,500 Italians opposed to the project bought up a vineyard that the tracks were supposed to go through.


The project’s promoters argue that this new train line will facilitate trade and thereby increase competitiveness of southern European countries – not only France and Italy, but also Portugal and Spain. They also argue that the line will be good for the environment, as it should reduce the number of trucks used to transport goods.



Clashes between police and protesters on February 29 in Chianocco, Italy. Video published by NEXSVSSS3 on YouTube.

“The anti-train movement is becoming the symbol of all protests in Italy”

Emmanuel Coux lives in Seyssel, in the French department of Haute-Savoie in the country’s east. He is a member of the French Green party and writes a blog following the anti-train opposition movement.


Emmanuel Coux (right, carrying a flag) participated in an anti-train march on February 25. Photos published on the website


The Lyon-Turin high-speed line is useless and dangerous for a whole set of reasons. First, it poses environmental problems: there is asbestos and uranium in the rock that would need to be drilled into to build the cross border-tunnel, and its release could cause dangerous air and water pollution in the valley [a study conducted by construction company LTF found that the risk of encountering asbestos or uranium-charged rock during the drilling process was “limited.”]


I’m not opposed to train lines. On the contrary, I think rail travel should be developed. But a line linking France and Italy already exists, and it’s under-used: it could carry 17 tonnes of merchandise per year, and only carries 2.4 tonnes.


Small towns and villages will be the biggest losers because the train will only stop in major cities. In the past, travelers would stop to rest every 30 miles and would pay for food and lodging in these villages. A high-speed line doesn’t stop, so there’s no need for bars, hotels, and restaurants. Also, the frequency of local trains will be diminished, which will reduce the number of local train conductor and controller jobs. This line will have a very negative impact on the local economy, and further isolate the valley and its citizens.


Making things worse is the project’s huge cost: about 25 billion euros. And its profitability is less than certain. We calculated that we would need to double the amount of cargo transport that currently exists just to cover the construction costs. And with the Italian economy in the state that it is, that seems less than likely. In several villages just across the border, the schools have fallen into such disrepair that children are going to class in pre-fab barracks. The hospital shut down in the city of Avigliana. The region is rich overall, but authorities don’t have their priorities straight, and sometimes residents feel like they are in a third-world country.


“There’s a lot of talk about the anarchists because their actions are very visible”


On February 25, 75,000 people [10,000 according to the police] protested on the Italian side of the border: among them, catholic and environmental groups, members of political parties from both the left and the right, mayors, local officials… There’s a lot of talk about the anarchists, because their actions are very visible, and sometimes questionable.


But no matter how big the protests get, authorities refuse to listen. The press doesn’t help, either: the [Berlusconi-owned conservative] newspaper Il Giornale called Luca Abba [an expropriated farmer who spent several days in a coma after being electrocuted by a train pole under unclear circumstances] a “cretin”. Of course, that sparked a wave of furor and indignation among anti-train line demonstrators, and the protests escalated.


In fact, all the ingredients are coming together for the protests to radicalise: public services are in poor shape and getting worse, and there is a real sense of social unease as authorities spend so much money on something residents here don’t want or need. The anti-rail movement is becoming a symbol of all protests in Italy.


“The French project managers sold the idea of high-speed trains much better, which is why opposition in France never took off”


Opposition in France never really took off. The French project managers sold the idea of a high-speed train much better, and at the time the Lyon-Turin line looked like a good idea. There was talk of a “cultural highway” linking the people of the Savoie and Piedmont regions, on either side of the Alps. We were told it was the only solution to reduce truck traffic and pollution. And high-speed trains are a symbol of French technological prowess. Their usefulness is never questioned.


But I’m noticing that the pro-high-speed consensus in France is beginning to show cracks. Some political leaders are starting to realize that the Lyon-Turin line isn’t as useful and indispensable as its promoters make it out to be.”



Police arresting protesters in Chianocco, Italy on February 29. Video published on YouTube by  ANGELO3931.


A violonist amidst the crowd of protesters. Photo published on Twitter by @notav. 


Anti-train line protesters blocking a road between Palerme and Catane on March 1. Photo published on Twitter by  @ExKarcere.


Protests against the train line have taken place all over Italy. This photo shows a protest in Bologna on March 1. Photo published on Twitter by @SouthSide43.