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Poitiers-Limoges TGV Link Approved

Tuesday 03 February 2015

A new €2 billion TGV line between Poitiers and Limoges has been signed off, blighting vast swathes of the Vienne countryside with a project that may never be built.

The announcement last month by the French government to give the go ahead for a 115 kilometre high-speed rail link between Poitiers and Limoges surprised most observers.

It is a project that is hotly contested, not only for the impact on the environment, but because of its questionable utility value. The line only reduces the travel time between Limoges and Paris by around 30 minutes - 2 hours, as opposed to 2 hours 30 minutes on the existing inter-city line.

Chief amongst the opponents of the new line is the association of transport users (Fédération nationale des associations d’usagers des transports -Fnaut) who have lodged an appeal to the Conseil d'État, the highest administrative court in France.

"It is a question of being rational," says Jean Sivadière, president of Fnau. "We are not against TGVs in principle. We defend good projects on a case by case basis, such as the proposed Bordeaux-Toulouse TGV line, for example. But here, we will spend €2 million of public money and make an undeniable cut in the landscape for a low level of traffic - there will be only one line - and for low frequency.

Their view seems to be one that is shared by almost every other public watchdog charged with reviewing government policy.

In October last year, the French National Audit Office (Cour de Comptes), in a devastating report that questioned the management of the whole of the TGV network, stated that the Poitiers-Limoges line "had not been based on any prior reflection nor on a definition of the mobility requirements of the inhabitants of the regions", and that "the costs of the project had been significantly understated and the level of the traffic signficantly overstated.

The auditors also highlighted that funding from the local councils was not assured, and that there existed strong political controversy amongst the councils and inhabitants about the project which masked its credibility.

SNCF, the rail operators, have themselves have publically expressed their difficulties in making the TGV lines profitable, and of finding approximately €30 billion that is needed to undertake modernisation of existing lines.

There have also been other serious detractors.

The public enquiry that took place into the project gave its support, but only provided there was funding available. It stated that to wait 15 years before the start of works was "unacceptable".

Last December, the Conseil d'État are said to have expressed a negative opinion on the proposed line, stating that there was no immediate public interest in the project.

In 2013, a commission set up by the government to examine and prioritise the grand transport projects then on the table judged that the Poitiers-Limoges line was not of strategic importance, and that it could be pushed back until 2030.

Bertrand Pancher, a member of the commission, denounced the decision, stating that it was "one that was guided by a particular interest, which did not take account of the general interest."

That 'particular interest' may not be unrelated to those of President Hollande, whose political base is the Corrèze in the Limousin, south of where the line will terminate, but whose area is likely to benefit from a TGV line in close proximity.

Indeed, the history of the project appears to be littered with narrow political considerations, originating as it did in 2004, when it was floated by the then Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who also happens to be the elected senator of Vienne, whose capital city is Poitiers. The project also received the enthusiastic backing of the then President Chirac (complying with orders from his wife Bernadette) whose political base is the Corrèze.

Largely as a result of their intervention, a plan to modernise the existing Toulouse-Limoges-Orleans-Paris was abandoned in 2003. Opponents have argued that the existing line could have been converted to high-speed use.

Despite all the expert advice, last month the government burnt the messages they had received and simply issued a decree declaring "d’utilité publique et urgents les travaux nécessaires à la réalisation de la ligne à grande vitesse Poitiers-Limoges."

The formal 'Déclaration d'Utilité Publique (DUP)' of the project opens the way for the compulsory purchase of buildings and land. In this case it stated that this part of the process should be completed with 15 years, giving a pretty strong hint that no works are likely to start for the foreseeable future!

Yet the government were obliged to issue the decree in order to protect its future position, for there remained only two days in the legal process for the DUP to be issued, failing which they would need to start the process from scratch.

The decision may also have had something to do with the proposed reorganisation of the regional councils, for what better way to create a sense of symbolic unity between the proposed Aquitaine, Limousin and Poitou-Charentes region than a new TGV line that crosses two of those existing regions and links to the third!

Nevertheless, even within the government there are dissenting voices, most notably that of the capricious Ségolène Royal, the Minister of the Environment (and also president of the Poitou-Charente regional council), who has recently expressed a preference for modernisation of the existing inter-city line. This is despite the fact that she was a co-signatory to the DUP decree! She claims she only signed the decree out of "solidarité" with the government.

The Fédération nationale des associations d’usagers des transports (Fnaut) along with a number of local councils have lodged an appeal against the DUP to the Conseil d'État, the highest administrative court in France. They argue that no project whose start date on site is at least 15 years away could be considered to be 'urgent'.

Given what we already know about the opinion of the Conseil d'État, they have every chance of winning their case, although there is obviously concern amongst opponents that members of the court will face political pressure to turn down the appeal.

In the meantime, households along the route of the proposed line are unlikely to be able to sell their homes, or to borrow money to buy or improve a property near the route.

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