Europe caves in to road lobby: Rail network under threat as motorway building spree cuts a swathe through beauty spots

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The Independent Online
OVER the next 20 years, the European Union intends to spend more than pounds 800bn on carving 12,000km of motorway through the remaining green space of its already overcrowded and polluted lands.

It is all part of the race to make the Union competitive by generating economic growth and creating jobs.

The awe-inspiring motorway project, on a par with the construction of the American Interstate road system in the 1970s, is going ahead largely at the expense of rail networks; it is also happening at a time when the damaging impact of road transport on the global ecology is more fully understood. Carbon dioxide emissions from trucks and cars build up greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming.

The EU signed the Earth Summit Treaty convention committing itself to maintaining carbon dioxide emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000, a target no one expects the Union to meet. Now, thanks to the motorway building spree and the primacy of the automobile in plans for European economic recovery, these exhaust emissions from transport are expected instead to increase by 30 to 80 per cent.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the policy of promoting road links over rail, sit the local objectors.

In the valley of the Aspe in southern France, the last remaining colony of European bears in the Pyrenees is on the brink of extinction - as armed riot police stand guard 24 hours a day on a site for a motorway that will cut straight through the habitat of the remaining eight to 13 bears.

'For daring to protest, we have had to endure the most frightful attacks from the riot police, complete with truncheon attacks and CS gas,' said Genevieve Saule, a local teacher and organiser.

A rail link through the Pyrenees already connects the Spanish city of Zaragoza with Pau in France, but it has been disused for years. None the less, Madrid and Paris have drawn up plans for a motorway link through a national park in one of the most beautiful and isolated parts of the Pyrenees. The motorway, which neatly bypasses rebelliously independence- minded Catalonia, has the enthusiastic backing of the two governments.

Thousands of miles to the north, an equally controversial plan to build a motorway bridge across the Oresund Strait connecting Scandinavia to the European continent is on the verge of being given the green light, despite a more environmentally friendly alternative of building a tunnel for a freight and passenger rail link: the Channel tunnel option.

Construction of the Oresund bridge is likely to destroy one of Europe's remaining big waterfowl wintering grounds, and at the same time is expected to interfere with the flow of salt water into the Baltic Sea, thereby killing off entire fisheries in the littoral states.

But the governments of Denmark and Sweden are expected to steamroller ahead with the project. On the Danish side of the 10-mile-wide Oresund Strait, houses are already being demolished and access roads built, with the help of generous subsidies from the European Union budget.

Only Switzerland, which has a system of direct democracy that allows the population to change or otherwise halt government policy through referendums, has managed to halt the road-building mania sweeping Europe. The European Union's drive to complete the Single Market and abolish national barriers ran into a formidable roadblock from the Swiss last month, when voters unilaterally banned all foreign lorries travelling through their territory.

The ban, which had ministers from the EU boiling over with rage, is the first big obstacle the road lobby has had to contend with in its quest for the Holy Grail of ever more roads and motorway links.

In a demonstration of what the EU calls 'subsidiarity' (taking decisions at the lowest appropriate level), Swiss voters stymied the road lobby's plans for seamless motorway along the shortest route from the Mediterranean to the industrial heartland of Germany. Within 10 years, during which no further roads can be built, all long- distance lorries must switch to piggy-back rail services when passing through the Swiss Alps.

The decision to force the transfer from road to rail and make transport pay its full costs - juggernauts cause acid rain that kills alpine trees, causing subsequent soil erosion and landslides that threaten mountain villages - is in line with the EU's own principles. The difference is that the Swiss apply the principles while staying well outside the EU, while the Union ignores them in favour of a road-building spree.

The Swiss are spending tens of billions of pounds on two new tunnels under the Alps, which will allow rail to transport 3 million lorries a year. The projects will produce almost 100km of new railway - twice the length of the Channel tunnel.

Austria, which joins the EU next year, has put up stiff resistance to the number of lorries passing through its territory, but it has come nowhere near the Swiss fundamentalist approach of banning trucks altogether.

The masterplan to cross- hatch the European Union with motorways and upgraded roads at the expense of rail transport was drawn up by the European Round Table of Industrialists, the most influential operator in the European lobbying business.

Numbering among its members Fiat, Volvo, Daimler-Benz, Shell, Total, BP and Plessy, the Round Table has a vested interest in road construction, which leads to more cars being bought and more oil and petrol being used, whatever the destructive impact on local communities, the local environment or the wider ecology of increased carbon dioxide emissions.

The crowning glory for the lobbying efforts came on 23 October last year, when the European heads of state backed what amounted to the Round Table's blueprint by setting the future priorities as: connecting countries and regions where there are 'missing links'; upgrading cross-border transport; and improving the accessibility of far-flung regions of the EU.

At a time of great political uncertainty in Europe, coupled with the rise of extremist far- right politics - both linked to the prolonged recession and unemployment spiralling upwards to the 20 million mark - the chief selling point of the transportation plan was the promise of rapid economic growth, the traditional answer to the job- creation conundrum.

Even the European Commission President, Jacques Delors, who helped to obtain approval for the plan for transport and information superhighways, seems to have his doubts about the ability of governments substantially to influence economic growth in the way foreseen.

An entire chapter of the Delors White Paper, which charts the future direction of the EU, says that a better answer could be to change the direction of economic development to one using more labour and reducing the burden caused by pollution.

But as with many good ideas, which in this case has been applauded by transport economists and environmentalists, good policy does not necessarily follow. That is especially the case in the EU, which is so ready to listen to the arguments of the road lobby.

'Does building new roads really create more jobs?' asks Arie Bleijenberg of Transport and the Environment (T&E), an umbrella group for organisations that include Britain's Transport 2000. 'Of course, during the construction period, people are at work, but this happens with all state investments. Spending the money on housing could create more jobs and less pollution.'

The environmental lobby says that road transport is a cost to the economy, because its users do not pay the full costs of their activities and, as a result building new roads, it just leads to more road use, congestion and pollution.

A T&E report to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development points out that as long as emissions of harmful substances and noise continue to exceed what human beings can tolerate, and as long as people continue to be killed or injured in large numbers on our roads, transport will generate 'social costs' that have to be paid for.

It is an argument the European Commission fully accepts, and has used in making its case for an energy tax across the EU. The reality of European transport politics is such, however, that the demands of the road lobby are given priority.

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