Bunhill: Peril on track in Provence

Click to follow
SOME people will be working in Provence this month. But most of them will be from Ove Arup, the consulting engineers. They've been called in by the French government to advise on one of the trickiest planning jobs in Europe.

Until now, the SNCF, the French railway board, has had its own way planning and building lines for France's super high-speed network, the TGV.

Even the SNCF quailed, however, when the inhabitants of Provence rose up over a proposed TGV route from Valence, south of Lyons, down to Marseilles, with a branch line to Montpellier on the way to Spain.

So the French ministry of transport retreated behind that well-known British delaying tactic, a public inquiry, and set about finding some expert, independent, technical advice. No French consultant would touch the job; they didn't want to offend the SNCF. So Arup was called in, partly, one suspects, because it sounded Swedish and therefore neutral - even though it's thoroughly Anglicised.

Arup's biggest advantage, however, was its status as the magician which convinced the British Department of Transport to abandon BR's route for a fast link to the Channel tunnel through south London in favour of its own eastern approach. Fortunately for Arup, it has not been asked to advise on the eastern branch of the new TGV line. This would run east to Nice but on the way would ruin the view from (and of) Mont Saint Victoire, the mountain Cezanne painted so often, and plough either through some of Provence's most celebrated vineyards or one of the best- preserved Roman temples in the region.

Not even the most diplomatic and most Swedish-sounding engineers could have brought order out of that little lot.