Cash-strapped France rethinks rail plans

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The Independent Online

The French government has questioned ambitious plans to expand the high-speed train network in the West and the South by calling for an audit of all projected capital expenditure on transport.

The French government has questioned ambitious plans to expand the high-speed train network in the West and the South by calling for an audit of all projected capital expenditure on transport.

The new centre-right administration in Paris, under pressure from the European Union to balance its budget by 2004, is seeking a report on the cost-effectiveness of a series of rail, road and canal projects.

The new TGV line to Strasbourg, Luxembourg and Germany, already under construction, will be spared. The first 200-mile section, due to open in 2007, will go ahead, the government has decided.

But a series of other TGV projects planned by the previous centre-left government, including cross-frontier links to Italy and Spain, will be reconsidered and may be delayed or abandoned.

The most politically sensitive of the projects under review is a high-speed rail link from Lyon to Turin through the Alps, which would be used by TGV passenger trains and shuttles for cars and trucks to relieve the pressure on the alpine road tunnels. Preliminary work on the line – due to open in 2012 – has started.

The government has called for the line to be reviewed, suggesting that the building programme may at the very least be delayed. That would be a subject of possible dissension with the Italian government and infuriate environmental and local pressure groups who have been promised that heavy goods will be rerouted by rail within a decade.

Transport experts in France pointed out that the country had never built more than one TGV line at a time. Under the ambitious programme worked out by the previous transport minister, Jean-Claude Gayssot – a former railwayman – a whole series of TGV projects, costing more than £100bn in total, would have overlapped.

The other high-speed lines under possible threat are a section from Perpignan to Figueras, intended to form part of an eventual trunk route from Paris to Madrid and an extension of the existing TGV line to Marseille along the Côte d'Azur to Nice. A plan to build a northern branch of the TGV to the Mediterranean coast, linking Dijon to Mulhouse on the Swiss border – approved in January – is included in the audit.

Longer-term plans to ex- tend the short TGV line to the west of Paris as far as Bordeaux and Brittany would also be re-examined.

Transport experts predict that most of these projects will eventually be built will probably be spread out over 30 years instead of the next 10 to 20 years as the previous government had envisaged.

The audit will also stud motorways and canals, including a plan to cut a wide canal 40 miles long to link the Seine to northern Europe.

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