High speed Alpine rail link causes deep Italian rift

Carabinieri near Susa

High in the valleys that wind up from Turin towards the French border, a small army of police and paramilitary carabinieri are dug in, braced for the next round in a 22-year-old battle that pits local traditionalists, grass roots activists and global environmentalists against big business, the European Commission and the Italian government.

At stake is the future of a new high speed railway, or Tav (Treno Alta Velocita), across the Alps between Turin and Lyon.

It is the final link in a pan-European network stretching from Barcelona to Bulgaria and beyond.

Image caption Susa has 7,000 people and is a town divided over the high speed line

Now - under fresh impetus from both the technocrat government of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and the European Commission - that link looks closer than ever to becoming reality.

Its supporters believe the project will slash journey times and breathe new life into the local, national and regional economy. Its opponents say it is out of date, unnecessary and an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen.

The latest front line in this conflict lies a short walk from the town of Susa, through tiny vineyards and hamlets that look as if they haven't changed much in 100 years.

The early spring sunshine is deceptive. The buds on the vines are full but shut tight; the forecast for fresh snow; the breeze keen with the threat of a sting in winter's tail.

The security forces' compound sits incongruously amid this rural idyll, beneath the massive concrete pillars of the motorway that winds its way up towards France.

It comes complete with high steel fences topped with razor wire, with armoured cars and camouflaged trucks - and with men from all the branches of Italy's security apparatus.

Last stand

It is down here that engineers want to dig an exploratory tunnel before work starts in earnest on the rail link proper.

And it is here that the most intransigent campaigners of the No Tav movement are determined - if need be -- to make their last stand.

Doriana Tassotti is one of them - and a regular visitor to the site.

The last time troops and protesters clashed here, a few weeks ago, one long-time activist fell 15 metres from an electricity pylon he had attached himself to. He survived, badly burned, but lucky to be alive.

Ms Tassotti says others, too, are prepared to pay with their health - or their liberty - for their commitment.

The No Tavs argue that the technical case against the project is clear.

"All the data shows that it's sheer madness to build this line," says Ms Tassotti.

"It's simply not necessary because the existing railway works perfectly fine. The number of passengers and the quantity of goods being carried on it is falling. And if you really want to travel to Paris these days it's cheaper to fly anyway."

Campaigners also worry about the environmental impact of such a massive construction project on a delicate mountain ecosystem, as well as the possible health effects of drilling through rock that contains uranium and asbestos - and the dangers of corruption if the Mafia is attracted to the lucrative construction contracts on offer if it goes ahead.

But the big guns lined up in favour of the Tav show no sign of changing tune.

Prime Minister Monti says that any uncertainty about Italy's commitment would send a message that Italy was drifting away from the heart of Europe.

The European Commission considers it a strategic imperative.

Divided town

Susa - home to 7,000 people - stands at the confluence of two Alpine torrents and lends its name to the valley. It is a natural meeting point whose inhabitants have found ways to co-exist with sometimes unwelcome visitors - the Romans, the Saracens, and the French under Napoleon.

Father Ettore Faveri, rector for 30 years of the cathedral of San Giusto, says the first people to propose the high speed rail link - more than 20 years ago - took the local community for granted. "They came as invaders into our territory," he says.

"If they had come with a modicum of respect for the territory and the people who live here, it wouldn't have come to this."

Image caption Campaigners such as Doriana Tassotti say the high speed line is economic madness

The result is that Susa today is a town divided. Its mayor, Gemma Amprino, has given her qualified backing to the high speed rail link.

Managed correctly, she believes, it would cut pollution from cars and trucks, help promote the local tourist industry and create new jobs to replace those lost during the recession.

For that, she's received some unwelcome gifts: a bouquet of barbed wire, and a bunch of bright yellow tear gas canisters. "It's caused very big problems in our social life. You get divisions in the same family, fights in the workplace, in everyday life. It's very sad for the valley."

It cuts both ways. Doriana Tassotti's husband, Mario Fontana, is, like her, a diehard opponent of the Tav. He too has learned the price of taking a stand: a sign scrawled outside his home saying it would be better if he were dead. Doriana, too, talks of families split - brother against brother, father against son.

Bruno Andolfatto knows this story better than most. As editor of the local newspaper, the Valsusa, he has watched the argument ebb and flow - and tracked its corrosive impact on the people of Susa.

Today, though, he detects hints of a break in the logjam. "It used to be very black and white," he says. "You were either for it or against. Today, I think, people are beginning to see the different shades of grey. It's as if, one way or another, like it or not, we're condemned to live with it."

Such talk cuts no ice with the hard core of the No Tav movement, known as the "testardi" (diehards), who see the determination of Mr Monti's unelected government to press ahead with the project as evidence of a democratic vacuum.

The sense that they have been excluded from the debate has struck a chord beyond the valley - and helped fuel the spread of protests to towns and cities across Italy.

At a rally in the Valle di Susa a few weeks ago, the MEP and philosopher Gianni Vattimo argued that parliament had "lost all credibility".

"We are in the hands of an unelected clique of bankers and technocrats. There is no alternative to popular protest," Mr Vattimo said.

If he is right, the 22-year-old campaign against the Tav may just have tapped into a rich, fresh vein of popular discontent.

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