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Monday, 29 January, 2001, 16:00 GMT
France and Italy agree Alpine rail link
Turin protest with banner reading
Protesters say the tunnel will harm the environment
The leaders of France and Italy have agreed to build a high-speed rail link joining their two countries via a 52km Alpine tunnel.

Map of proposed tunnel
The French president, Jacques Chirac, said he expected the first trains to be running in 2015.

The leaders, meeting in Turin, also agreed to reopen the Mont Blanc tunnel in September. The road link between the two countries has been closed since a fire in the tunnel killed 39 people in March 1999.

While the French are the prime movers behind the rail link - from Lyon to Turin - the Italians are also keen to get the Mont Blanc tunnel running again.

Protests

Protesters clashed with police in Turin on Monday as 2,000 people gathered to demonstrate against the tunnel, which they say will damage the environment.

They insist it will be an ecological disaster for the valleys affected.

Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato and French President Jacques Chirac
The two leaders backed rail and road links through the Alps
But French officials say rail travel is less dangerous and polluting than road transportation.

The rail link will be a key part of a network of high-speed railways across Europe, and is expected to cost at least $10bn (11 billion Euros). It will take between 15 and 20 years to complete.

Boring the 52km tunnel through the Alps will cost $5.5bn (6 billion Euros).

Though the tunnel would be a similar length to the Channel Tunnel which links Britain and France, the Alpine terrain would present a far greater challenge to engineers.

The Mont Blanc road tunnel was supposed to be back in operation last autumn, but the target date was later postponed until March this year. Flooding then forced the date to be put back again.

Italian diplomats said before the summit that they would give the go-ahead for the rail link if France committed itself to reopening the Mont Blanc tunnel this autumn.

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