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Mont Blanc reopens - as do the arguments

Safety tests were carried out in the Mont Blanc tunnel two months ago in preparation for its reopening on Saturday Keystone Archive

Saturday's opening of the Mont Blanc tunnel marks the end of a three-year wait for motorists and truck drivers.

This content was published on March 9, 2002 - 11:12

The tunnel between France and Italy has been closed since March 1999 when an accident triggered an inferno, killing 39 people.

Now, three years and €341 million (SFr501 million) later the tunnel is ready for traffic.

But the arrival of passenger cars under Europe's highest mountain has triggered mixed feelings.

For the governments of Italy, France and Switzerland, the reopening is a relief after all the headaches caused by the Mont Blanc fire.

Violent reaction

The decision to reopen the Mont Blanc tunnel also triggered a violent reaction on Saturday when unknown assailants set off an explosive device outside the tunnel.

French police said the device went off around 3.30 a.m. It was planted on the bonnet of a parked car on one of the tunnel's French access routes. No one was hurt but the car was badly damaged. Police added that no other damage was caused. The planned reopening to car traffic of the tunnel went ahead as planned at midday.

Traffic strangled

Since the closure trans-European traffic has been heavily disrupted, as motorists and truckers sought alternative routes across the Alps - often through Switzerland.

The transport crisis was further inflamed by a fire in Switzerland's Gotthard tunnel last October - caused by an unlicensed truck driver who fell asleep at the wheel killing 11 and a causing a two-month closure.

Since then, the Swiss have become accustomed to the sight of long traffic jams at both ends of the Gotthard - which reopened in December, but with heavy traffic restrictions.

Many in the Swiss government hope the reopening of Mont Blanc will ease pressure on Switzerland's transport network, and defuse some of political pressure.

Swiss politicians are being lobbied by transport groups to increase the capacity of the Gotthard, which was reopened with heavy restrictions on trucking traffic.

Italy loses billions

In Italy, the financial impact of the Mont Blanc closure has been enormous.

Italian Transport Minister Pietro Lunardi said this week that Italy's economy had lost €2.58 billion since the closure - and attacked critics of the reopening.

"Since 1965, the Mont Blanc tunnel has been an essential link between our two countries," Lunardi was quoted as saying in an Italian newspaper. "By which arguments would these so-called ecologists want to forbid heavy trucks."

In France, however, those same arguments about environmental and safety concerns have forced tunnel officials to delay the reopening.

To allay some of the fears, the tunnel has been virtually rebuilt - complete with new fire-resistant wall linings, ventilation systems and a series of pressurised evacuation chambers designed to protect people in the case of future fires.

Heavy limits

Worries about a future accident have also resulted in significant traffic restrictions.

Still only two-lanes wide, the tunnel will have a new speed limit of 70 km/h, and later this month when heavy traffic is again allowed though, new regulations limiting trucks to travel in one direction at a time. All vehicles will have to be at least 150 metres apart.

Despite relief about the reopening in government and business, many remain deeply unhappy.

The opening is likely to be accompanied by significant protests from environmental and tourism groups who argue trucks are too dangerous for the tunnel and pollute the air.

One of the biggest protests is likely to be in the resort of Chamonix, the closest French town to the tunnel - where a demonstration has been planned for months.

Uncertainty

Divisions over the tunnel are particularly stark in France, even at the highest political levels.

Two ministers in the cabinet of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin - a candidate in this year's presidential race - this week made contradictory remarks about when to allow trucks through Mont Blanc.

Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot said on Tuesday that trucks would get the green light on March 15, while Environment Minister Yves Cochet said the trucking date was "a hypothesis"

by Jacob Greber

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