Swiss deal telling blow to road network

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EUROPEAN governments are furious at Switzerland's decision to ban all foreign lorries travelling through its territory. The European Union's plans for trade - and for a trans-continental road network - suffered a blow from Swiss voters who have backed plans to protect the Alps from growing pollution from thousands of lorries.

Within 10 years, during which no roads may be built, all lorries must switch to piggy-back rail services. There will be a profound effect on trade as Switzerland has the shortest route from the Mediterranean to Germany.

The latest anti-juggernaut revolt began in the canton of Uri - which last won international attention in the thirteenth century when a Hapsburg invader forced William Tell to shoot an apple from his son's head. The canton contains the St Gotthard pass, one of the Continent's main crossroads for centuries. Ten thousand signatures were raised, enough to call a national plebiscite which approved the ban by nearly 52 per cent at the weekend.

'We will protest,' Carlos Westendorp, Spain's state secretary for European affairs, said yesterday. Spanish lorries use the route to avoid toll- charging French motorways. France and the Netherlands expressed irritation. Italy demanded an investigation into the impact on its trade.

Germany said it saw the vote as a setback to EU-Swiss ties and condemned what it saw as unilateral action. 'This (pollution) is a European problem,' the German transport ministry said.

About 2,500 lorries roar through the St Gotthard pass a day - compared with 80 in 1980, before a new tunnel opened. That is expected to more than double by 2000.

The Swiss decision will mean more lorries going through Austria, probably increasing opposition to its plans to join the EU. In 1992 almost 90 per cent of freight through Switzerland - 18 million tons of goods a year - was travelling by rail, using containers or entire lorries 'piggy-backing' on wagons. Almost all recent growth in goods traffic over the Alps has been by road.

Now, thanks to Switzerland's system of direct democracy, Berne will have to back down on agreements made with the EU to co-operate in its plans for a European network. However, the push for a trans-European road system has been attacked as having paid scant regard for the environment.

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