France to pay for high-speed rail links by taxing lorry trips

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The Independent Online

France is planning to tax journeys by foreign and domestic lorries to help to fund a new batch of high-speed railway lines and motorways.

Gilles de Robien, the Transport Minister, said yesterday that a tax or fee charged on all trucks travelling on toll-free motorways or dual-carriageways in France could raise €1bn (£710m) a year towards the cost of transport projects.

The plan would be modelled on the fees which are to be imposed from 31 August on all long-distance lorry journeys in Germany.

A system of fees on non-toll dual-carriageways in France would be especially costly to British haulage firms which have to cross French territory to reach southern Europe.

More than two-thirds of the French motorway system is already covered by tolls but M. de Robien wants to charge fees on lorries - not cars or coaches - which use the many hundreds of kilometres of free motorways and four-lane roads.

He made the announcement before a parliamentary debate yesterday on the awkward budgetary choices that face France's ambitious plans for new rail and road - but especially rail - links over the next 25 years.

The centre-right government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin called into question more than €100bn of road, rail, canal and airport projects soon after it took office last year.

Since then the French economy has slid to the brink of recession and the country's budget deficit has exceeded the limit of 3 per cent of gross domestic product imposed on euroland economies.

M. de Robien said some of the more ambitious high-speed rail and road projects might have to be shelved and new forms of financing would have to be found for the others.

Yesterday's parliamentary debate, which gave deputies a chance to defend their pet projects, was the start of a horse-trading process which should finish by the end of the year.

An audit by senior officials, published in March, called for the scrapping, or postponement, of a new generation of high-speed railway lines, including a €15bn plan to tunnel through the Alps between Lyons and Turin, by 2015.

Its conclusions were rejected by a report last month by the French regional planning body, Datar, which called for most available transport funds to be concentrated on railway and canal schemes, at the expense of new roads.

M. de Robien's plan for a tax on truck journeys - which will be put to parliament later this year - is intended to ease these choices by generating an extra €15bn for transport projects over 15 years. Whether the fees would be extended beyond that time remains unclear.

Similar charges are already imposed in Switzerland and Austria, and a system of fees for all long journeys by trucks weighing more than 12 tonnes will be introduced in Germany from 31 August.

Both foreign and domestic trucks will have to pay an average of eight pence a kilometre to use any roads in Germany. At present all German roads, including motorways, are free of tolls. The fees would be enforced by a network of ticket booths and cameras.

Since 1981, France has built more than 1,000 miles of high-speed railways lines to Lille, Calais, Marseilles, Le Mans and Tours with a mixture of national and regional funding and loans. A 300-mile line towards Alsace and Lorraine is under construction and is due to open in 2007.

Funding for the next generation of lines - including the extension of existing TGV (train à grande vitesse) tracks to Brittany, Bordeaux and Toulouse - has been called into question by the slowdown of the French economy and the budgetary limits imposed by membership of the single European currency.