MEETING in Modane on May 15, French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot and his Italian counterpart Pier-Luigi Bersani agreed to push ahead with work on the Mont Cenis base tunnel and the Lyon - Torino high-speed line as part of a programme to divert transalpine traffic from road to rail.

Despite severe restrictions being put in place on the Mont Blanc road tunnel, which is expected to re-open next spring, freight traffic between France and Italy is expected to double over the next decade. The ministers want rail to take the bulk of the growth, with traffic via the Fréjus corridor increasing to 20 million tonnes a year. To handle this, Fr300m is being spent upgrading the existing line, and a further round of investment is envisaged for 2002-05.

A feasibility study for the base tunnel initiated in 1997 is due to be submitted to the Intergovernmental Commission on July 18. The commission has already selected a preferred routing, for which the estimated cost is Fr6bn for the full tunnel and Fr3·8bn for an initial single bore. The ministers have allocated funds for trial bores in the vallée de Suse next year to test the geology, and the money will be matched by an EU grant.

Studies will start this month into the best approach to the tunnel from the Chambéry area, and Gayssot expects to confirm the route from Lyon Satolas to Combe de Savoie in the autumn. Bersani hopes to agree a final location for the tunnel exit and a definitive alignment for the Torino bypass in September. Studies are under way for the route between Bussoleno and Torino.

The intention is to start work on the base tunnel by 2006 at the latest, and have the line open around 2015.