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Italians Rail Against a High-Speed Train Project

Updated Friday, 13 April, 2012

On a day in late winter in a valley in the Italian Alps, about a hundred people set off on a walk. Their path took them by steeply terraced vineyards, through a small village, and over the crest of a hill to where the riot police were waiting for them.

The officers stood in small knots, behind a fence topped with razor wire, spread out across a patch of cleared land where the government plans to break ground on an €8.2 billion ($10.8 billion) project to connect Italy and France by high-speed rail. Soldiers clustered nearby. A camouflage-painted Lince—Italy’s answer to a Humvee—moved in a lazy patrol. A medic’s jeep squatted under a concrete overpass.

The protesters had come to this part of the Val di Susa to make sure the project never gets off the ground. As part of a two-decade battle to impede the construction of a new train tunnel through the Alps, they have at times walked the roads of the valley in thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands. The No TAV movement (named for the Italian initials for high-speed train) has invaded construction sites, blocked highways, and battled police. “Our objective is to let them know we’re here,” says Alberto Perino, the movement’s longtime leader. “And that we plan to keep on coming.”

A protest against an infrastructure project in a small corner of Italy hardly seems like the basis of a national uprising. But “the level of trust in the political class is abysmally low,” says Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at Rome’s LUISS University. “What was initially a local resistance has combined with the rise of an anti-Establishment, populist protest movement on the national level. And that’s made it very strong.”

Prime Minister Mario Monti may feel like a breath of clean air after 17 years of Silvio Berlusconi, but few in Italy have forgotten that he came to office without ever having won an election. “There’s a lot of discontent in relation to the functioning of our democracy,” says Gianni Vattimo, a member of the European Parliament with the left-wing Italy of Values party. Although Monti remains personally popular, the free-market reforms he’s pushing are unpopular and not well understood by many. Yet the opposition Monti faces has been muted and ineffectual, with one exception: those opposing the train.

In March, the Milan-based polling firm ISPO found that although a majority of Italians support the rail line, 44 percent believe the protesters are justified in defending their land from the construction crews. “It has taken on a symbolic value,” says Renato Mannheimer, the president of ISPO. “It pulled together all those who want to protest.” To many in Italy, the Alpine tunnel symbolizes all that is wrong with the country. Opponents paint it as wasteful, environmentally destructive, and rammed through with little consultation. Sympathetic demonstrations have taken place as far south as Rome and Sicily. “The No TAV movement served as a detonator,” says Michele Ainis, a professor of law at Rome’s Roma Tre University. “They touched on a sentiment that’s very diffuse in Italy, that the citizen doesn’t count for anything.”

Proponents of the project argue that connecting Turin in Italy to Lyon in France by high-speed train is essential for European integration, and will provide a key link in a rail network that will one day run from Lisbon to Kiev and from London to Rome. In contrast with an existing line, which winds high into the Alps before passing through a tunnel dating from the 1870s, the new track will tunnel 35 miles through the heart of the mountains, cutting transport costs by some 30 percent, says Mario Virano, president of the Turin-Lyon Observatory, a technical body advising on the track’s construction. According to one study, the project would boost growth in the Piedmont region around Turin by 1 percentage point a year.

The protesters worry that the tunnel will unleash a host of environmental consequences as it cuts through underground waterways, uncovers deep veins of uranium and asbestos, and fills the valley air with dust, sickening the young and old. They observe— accurately—that in Italy, large public works have a way of busting their budgets and fueling corruption. And they ask whether in a time of crisis, the government should invest billions in a project facing such fierce opposition. “They say, ‘Let’s sit around the table and discuss the least impactful way to build it,’ ” says Perino. “We say, ‘Let’s first find out if it’s useful and indispensable, and then we can sit at the table.’ ”