Judges Ground High-Speed Train Project in Italy

By Marco Tistarelli
Epoch Times Staff
Created: February 27, 2013 Last Updated: February 28, 2013
Related articles: World » Europe
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A computer-generated artist’s image of how the finished station in Florence, designed by Norman Foster, should look on completion. (Media handout)

A computer-generated artist’s image of how the finished station in Florence, designed by Norman Foster, should look on completion. (Media handout)

Italian judges halted a high-profile transport project amidst allegations of widespread corruption a month ago, but repercussions are still gathering paceItalian judges halted a high-profile transport project amid allegations of widespread corruption a month ago, but repercussions are still gathering steam.

The public prosecutor’s office is trying to piece together a complex political, financial, and legal puzzle that involves allegations of abuse of office, fraud, illegal disposal of waste, corruption, fraud in public supplies, and possible Mafia connections.

Florence’s economy rests partly upon the transport industry that ships in droves of tourists to wonder at the countless masterpieces, frescoes, and architecture that adorn the historic city.

Efforts to connect the city more closely to Europe’s growing high-speed train network ground to a sudden halt in January when judges stepped in and ordered the construction site of a new tunnel to be sealed off while an investigation was launched.

Ornella De Zordo, leader of the opposition party Perunaltracittà and member of the municipal council in Florence said, “Over three years ago we started exposing and reporting to the mayor and the city council our doubts about this archaic work, which dates back to the ’90s, when urban culture was different.”

But like many critics of the project, she says the problems go back much further than the current allegations and that the project was always a waste of public money. “Forget for a minute the allegations of the magistrates. The project should be reviewed anyway; today it is necessary to protect the territory, knowing that it is not an infinite resource.”

The seals remain in place at the construction site and the tunneling machine named “Monna Lisa” which was supposed to dig 4.3 miles of tunnel, is gathering dust.

About 30 people have been placed on the list of persons under investigation: employees and managers from local and state institutions, public railway companies, contractors, and inspection agencies.

Ferrovie dello Stato, the government-owned organization in charge of the railways, has been put under the spotlight. In an official statement, it expressed its willingness to cooperate openly with the judges and said that it had immediately initiated an internal investigation.

Many local institutions hope the work will resume as soon as possible. The railway junction is considered strategic for the development of the territory, although high-speed trains are already running to and from Florence.

The high-speed link under construction before work was halted at the order of judges investigating possible corruption.

The high-speed link under construction before work was halted at the order of judges investigating possible corruption.

“Stopping the work harms for the system of mobility in the Florentine metropolitan area,” said the regional assessor for transport, Luca Ceccobao. “There is the risk that Florence could remain isolated from other cities. We have always acted in accordance with the law, now we have asked the government to step in. It must guarantee the employment of 300 workers and ensure appropriate inspections.”

Florentine magistrates highlighted issues of poor quality materials, land excavation used to hide toxicity, as well as problems related to noise and shock of the excavations under the UNESCO World Heritage city.

Then there is the local environmental watchdog that should have been overseeing the project—it mysteriously “expired” last summer, De Zordo said, making its last online update in April 2012. The unit has been brought back to life by the city council only in the aftermath of the judicial intervention.

The watchdog is composed of local institutions but significantly also includ(Italian Railway Network of the Italian State Railways), the organization behind the whole transport project. RFI subcontracted the whole project to Nodavia. Nodavia’s offices have also been searched by the police.

Despite the technical support offered by external bodies such as ARPAT (Regional Agency for Environmental Protection of Tuscany) and ISPRA (Institute for Protection and Environmental Research), critics say the watchdog lacks the independence that would be appropriate for being able to supervise a project so expensive, impacting, and delicate.

“We are the ones who found the watchdog had expired,” De Zordo said. “But it also should be emphasized the European Anti-Mafia Commission has expressed the need to clarify the control procedures, particularly about the grounds from the excavation.”

In a statement last summer, Sonia Alfano, chair of the European committee on organized crime said, “It is obvious that in Italy there is an attempt to exclude excavated soil and rocks from the definition of waste, even if heavily contaminated, and to consider them ‘recyclable products’ (in contrast to what established by European directives). In this way, these materials would become easily subjected to inadequate and harmful disposal in the environment.”

The Italian Ministry of Environment in July 2012 agreed to categorize the excavated material from the tunnel as not harmful, based on a report written a year before by an institute of analysis supported by some universities.

Yet the European Union had not expressly endorsed the relevant draft regulation that would allow this recategorization. Ignoring this, the Italian government continued its tacit consent, allowing the soil to be dumped nearby. This dumping created two brand new hills in the village of Cavriglia, effectively hiding the view of an old, disused mining area.

A local collective that opposes the tunnel, Committee No Tav Florence, claims that there are real alternatives to the project, but they were ignored by institutions. Tiziano Cardosi of the committee cites a 2011 study published by the University of Florence.

“It was 370 pages long, the result of years of volunteer work coordinated by academic scientists, local experts, and technicians to analyze the project,” Cardosi explained. The study concludes that the project is unnecessary, because space on the surface could be used instead, where trains already run.

With 60 percent of global high-speed lines, Europe is already a world leader, and with about 832 miles of track, Italy is fourth on the continent after Spain, France, and Germany.

The Italian high-speed train project is attached to the European track and to treaties between member states that advocate an expansion. The company RFI is working on lines that link Turin with Trieste, Milan with Salerno, Florence with Rome, and Genoa with Novi.

Last summer, the French Ministry of Transport requested to review the agreement between France and Italy on the Turin-Lyon rail line, initially signed in 2001. In “consideration of available funds, especially those from European communities,” reported AFP.

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