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France shunts new TGV projects into a siding


France today abandoned ambitious plans which would almost have doubled its network of high speed railway lines over the next two decades.

A cross-party report, accepted by the government, delayed for at least 17 years ten new railway projects, including new fast lines to Normandy, the Cote d’Azur and Spain.

Pharaonic but unfunded Euros 250bn transport scheme promised by the former President Nicolas Sarkozy, including  other high speed railway lines and a deep-water canal linking Paris to the North Sea, can simply not be built in the present  economic climate, the government has concluded.

Instead the Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has accepted the report’s recommendation that up to Euros 2.4bn a year should be spent on a raft of small projects to remove bottlenecks in the existing road and railway networks. The only new “ligne a grande vitesse” (high speed line) to survive the massacre will be an extension to Toulouse of a line already under construction from Paris to Bordeaux.

A projected line through tunnels in the Alps from Lyon to Turin is not covered by the report because it is the subject of a Franco-Italian treaty.

The government’s decision, which will infuriate French regional politicians, is the first time in three decades that Paris has called a halt to its “all TGV” policy for developing France’s rail network. The new approach will be seized upon by opponents of the government’s plans to build a second British high speed railway line (HS2) from London to Birmingham and the north of England.

They will argue that even France – the first country in Europe to invest in high speed railway lines in a big way – is turning instead to the development of its roads and its 19th century railway network. Supporters of HS2 will point out, however, that France has already built 1,200 miles of high speed lines since the late 1970s. Four new projects or extensions amounting to another 300 miles are currently being constructed. The British high speed network consists of the 65miles of HS1 from St Pancras to the Channel tunnel.

Some of the new French TGV lines promised by the then President Sarkozy after an environmental conference in 2007 were economically dubious from the outset. They include a second high speed line to Lyon, swinging close to Clermont Ferrand in central France; a line from Dijon to Geneva; a line to Limoges, branching from the line to the south west; lines along the Mediterranean coast to Nice and to the Spanish border; and a double-pronged new line from Paris to Normandy. Only a first, Paris suburban section of the Norman project will be financed before 2030 and this will be built to an “intermediate” standard between“classic” and “high speed”.

The Prime Minister, Mr Ayrault, yesterday welcomed the report called “Mobilite 21” drawn up by a cross-party investigation team led by Pilippe Duron, the Socialist mayor of Caen.

Mr Ayrault accused ex-President Sarkozy of promoting a “lie” in 2007-8 by promising Euros 250bn of public-private investment in transport projects over the next two decades. There was  never likely to have been money available for so many projects, he said. In the present economic climate, it was better to concentrate available investment on a range of smaller projects which would make an immediate difference to the quality of local services and help to boost the national economy.

“It was a lie to make people believe that we could make Euros 250bn of investments in the next 20 years,” Mr Ayrault said. “This was unrealistic, both technicaly and financially.”

The approach recommended by the report would mean “investing in the quality of (existing) services and investing where it is most immediately useful for growth”.

“The country is already extensively covered by railway line and motorways which we have to update and upgrade. “