The Founding Conference of the Via Atlantica Community of Interests, organized by ALTRO in the European Parliament (Brussels) on 1 July 2015, brought together MEPS, representatives of the European Commission (DG Move), regional representatives and financial stakeholders, such as ports. The ALTRO association, which unites thirty-seven territorial authorities and consular chambers, as well as individuals, campaigns for the Via Atlantica, East-West European passenger and freight railway axis, the southernmost and shortest line linking the Western Iberian Peninsula to Central Europe.
Isabelle Thomas (S&D Fr MEP), who allowed this conference to be held, introduced the discussion, after welcoming the participants, by reiterating the importance of the accessibility of the Atlantic territories, especially those of Brittany, from a social, economic and environmental point of view, and recognizing the need to open up the territories forgotten through the 9 corridors. She praised the ALTRO initiative and affirmed that the Via Atlantica project could count on the support of the S&D group. “To compensate for its geographical distance from Europe’s centre of gravity, it must be possible for the European Atlantic coast to have a high-performance rail link connecting it to Lyon-Turin, and it must be made possible for the Via Atlantica, which can rely on the support of the S&D group of the European Parliament, to meet this need while federating the citizens of the 7 countries concerned.“
Jean-Michel Guerre, ALTRO’s Chair and Vice-Chair of the Auvergne region, emphasized that the Via Atlantica project had a transnational and trans-regional dimension. He insisted on the need to abandon the fragmented vision adopted so far and to ensure consistency between the various initiatives, without which nothing will happen. Its links include, for France, the Southernmost part of the Paris-Orléans-Clermont-Ferrand-Lyon LGV project, the Poitiers-Limoges line, the Grand South-West Railway Project (GPSO) and the LNOBPL (New West Brittany Pays de La Loire-Brittany Line), which are thus strengthened in a legitimization that has often been challenged up to now; for the Western Iberian Peninsula, the Basque Y and Aveiro-Salamanca; for Italy, the Brescia-Slovenian border axis and for Central Europe the Ljubljana-Zagreb-Budapest axis.
For Jean-Michel Guerre, "the favourable demographic growth in the triangle formed by Brittany, the Basque Country and Rhône-Alpes makes high speed necessary". A triangle whose tip connects precisely to the Lyon-Turin TGV project defended by the MEP Mercedes Bresso, also present, and supported by ALTRO.
"Finally, if, rather than simply a high-speed line, the Via Atlantica is to be the link for the citizens of the seven countries concerned, the bonus for freight becomes obvious."
The aim of this conference in the European Parliament premises is to encourage all of the relevant public and community stakeholders to support it.
Herald Ruijters, Head of Unit at DG Move, presented the progress report of the TEN-T, whose aim, prior to 2030 is to unite the biggest economic centres of Europe into the core network. The corridors are an instrument of TEN-T’s policy in order to prioritize the efforts for the developments between now and 2030. He concludes by indicating that the Lyon-Turin link that ALTRO proposes between the Atlantic and Mediterranean corridors both complements and strengthens the 9 corridors perfectly.
Through its presence, the Commission has supported the initiative of reflecting on the Via Atlantica in order to generate a genuine European vision. It has encouraged the countries concerned to work together to refine the project.
Michel Caniaux, ALTRO’s general delegate, reiterated that connecting the Atlantic Arc to Central Europe by rail is not a new idea. Since the 1920s, the main French ports have been petitioning for an Atlantic-Danube corridor. But the railway network was designed in the 19th century, driven by industrial growth. The result being that the Grand Massif-Central, part of the Atlantic coastline and the Iberian Peninsula are still a desert in terms of high-speed lines.
The objective of the Via Atlantica is to complete the continent’s rail links as one of the objectives of the European Union’s White Paper on Transport, increasing use of the most energy-efficient modes of transport. With regard to freight transport by road for distances over 300 km: transfer 30% of freight to other modes of transport, such as railways or boats by 2030, and more than 50% by 2050; triple the length of the current high-speed railway network by 2030 and maintain a dense rail network in all Member States. By 2050, most medium-distance passenger transport should be operated by train.
6 to 7 hour passenger journeys, run by various European operators, already exist, and are therefore highly relevant between towns that do not have direct air links.
He was also keen to dispel any doubts by reiterating that the spirit of the Via Atlantica is not to compete with other initiatives to open up the Atlantic coastline, and that it is not yet a matter of choosing a route, but of reaching a consensus around a project that embraces the whole Atlantic coastline of Europe, from Caen to Lisbon.
Carlo de Grandis, of the Atlantic corridor coordination team, referred to the specificities of the Atlantic and Mediterranean corridors, paying particular attention to the links between these two corridors via the central network, but which continue to overshadow Brittany, the La Rochelle area, the Massif Central, parts of the Western Iberian Peninsula and of Central Europe.
Other European countries concerned by the Via Atlantica give their opinions:
Mercedes Bresso, MEP (S&D, IT) and former President of the Piedmont region, acknowledged the relevance of the project that will offer the Lyon-Turin line a natural outlet to the Atlantic coast, where it is important to connect the ports to the rest of Europe. This strengthens the Lyon-Turin route and helps encourage the development of environmentally-friendly modes of transport by increasing their areas of relevance, thanks to a project such as Via Atlantica, a tool of major development for Southern Europe, which opens up new prospects of development for Italy. "We must take into account the Atlantic coast’s need to open up, bringing Italy closer to the centre of Europe, via the connection of the Atlantic corridor to Mediterranean corridor in Lyon, while offering Lyon-Turin additional functionalities and providing Italy with an opening into new territories."
Marta Marin, Director of the of the Basque Country delegation to the EU, first referred to the work of the Atlantic Arc Commission on transport. Quoting the Final Declaration of “Bilbao 2015”, she stressed the desire of the CAA member regions to first supplement and strengthen what already exists, in order to open up the Atlantic regions. She stressed the importance for Basque Y to be connected to the rest of the Atlantic Corridor: “To integrate the priority projects of the Basque Country, such as Basque Y and Bordeaux-Spain, in the Via Atlantica European vision, so that they can be shared by the largest number of citizens, thanks to their new functions towards Italy, and so that they are aware of their accelerated achievement."
Jean-Paul Denanot, MEP (S&D, Fr) and former President of the Limousin region, considers that the new regional map calls for the Via Atlantica, which creates coherence among the major projects. Thus, “The Via Atlantica integrates the Poitiers-Limoges line and prevents the Lyon-Turin line from being a cul-de-sac in an unfinished corridor. These two projects will be linked to contribute towards the balanced spatial planning of the European territory." In other words, the Lyon-Turin line cannot be deprived of its natural continuity towards the Atlantic coast via the Massif Central.
Frank Bogovic MEP (EPP, Sl)re-emphasised Slovenia’s priority to efficiently link the port of Koper to Ljubljana and Austria, but said he was interested in an East-West Europe connection, the rail links always being interrupted these days and putting rail out of service. “The new line between the port of Koper and Divaca remains the priority for the Slovenian economy. The best and fastest railway links to Austria, Croatia and Hungary are also very important. These connections, as well as a better connection to the West as part of the Via Atlantica, opens new prospects and opportunities for development, growth and employment."
Michel Puyrazat, Chair of the Management Board of the Grand Port Maritime de La Rochelle, 6th busiest maritime port of France in terms of annual traffic, ahead of Bordeaux, presented the efforts that the port has made on the modal shift. The Atlantic ports need large-scale projects to make them accessible if they want to play the role of entry and exit points to and from the European continent, and further the modal shift. "The port of LR has experienced a continuous increase of traffic that could be consolidated and increased further with an efficient Via Atlantica-type East-West link connected to the Lyon-Turin line."
Helena Fernandes, port of Porto, places a lot of hopes in the scheduled modernization of Aveiro-Salamanca at a cost of EUR 800 million. If Portugal has renounced its high-speed network, priority is given to rail freight. Helena Fernandes regrets that only 5% of goods are shipped by rail to or from one hundred-and-eighty-one countries. "Rail’s share in the modal distribution of the port of Porto is still too low, but it must increase because its accessibility and influence depend largely on the quality of the railway infrastructure. This is why massive investments are planned on the Aveiro-Salamanca section of the Via Atlantica."
For Tony Berkeley of the European Rail Freight Association, the issue is to desaturate the ports of northern Europe in favour of an Atlantic coast that has been neglected, for lack of efficient rail infrastructures that are yet to be built. The Via Atlantica goes in this direction and deserves to be supported. He insisted on the importance of satisfying customers by offering them the fastest and most appropriate services to prevent them turning to the most polluting means of transport. "By giving birth to new cooperative relationships on an East-West rail axis, the Via Atlantica will seek to influence policies so that they consider freight as an important matter that is vital to the economy."
Pauline Caumont, Executive Secretary of the Atlantic Arc Commission of the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions (CPMR), presented the CPMR’s action in the field of transport. In particular, she cited the claims of the CAA Regions and placed the emphasis on rapidly improving and completing the Atlantic Corridor to strengthen the accessibility of the Regions neglected by the corridors and thus facilitate their economic development. “The CPMR has asked Commissioner Bulc to appoint a coordinator of European "grey zones", which particularly affects the Atlantic coastline. Our objective is to enhance the accessibility of all Atlantic Regions as well as their connections with the rest of Europe".
Pierre Deludet, VP of the Agglomeration Community of Montluçon, stressed the importance of mobility for attracting professionals in the most remote territories. Europe must not be limited to its metropolitan areas and mobility must also concern the medium-sized towns and cities. On the other hand, it is urgent to promote rail given the thousands of trucks that circulate daily on the RCEA (Route Centre-Europe Atlantique). In terms of road safety, “The Route Centre-Europe Atlantique, one of the most dangerous roads in France, would profit from being relieved of its trucks by the Via Atlantica, one of the expressions of these new European railway infrastructures, which must not be built to the detriment of the medium-sized towns and cities, which are essential for breathing life into the territories."
Claire Godin, General Delegate of the Metropolitan Centre of Loire-Bretagne (PMLB), supports a project for connecting the West to the East, a project that favours accessibility. “By participating in the founding conference of the Via Atlantica, the PMLB wishes to reiterate its support for the strategic issue of fully connecting the West to the centre of the EU. To be fully integrated in the Trans-European transport network (TEN-T), to encourage the connection of ports and airports to the goods and rail transportation system, these are our expectations in the interests of a more balanced spatial planning of the territory."
Jean-Michel Guerre reviewed the 10 objectives around which a consensus could amplify the strength of the Via Atlantica community of interests.
1. Create a genuine East-West European rail axis that ensures the natural continuity of the Lyon-Turin route toward the Atlantic coast, linking the Atlantic and Mediterranean corridors.
2. Design the Via Atlantica as an added value for the European Union, being a tool for developing employment and growth by opening up new territories, and a tool for building European citizenship by multiplying cooperative relationships.
3. Create a tool for the balanced spatial planning of the European territory.
4. Eliminate the five major territorial fractures: Portugal/Spain, Spain/France, Atlantic coast/Alps, France-Italy and Italy/ Slovenia-Croatia-Hungary
5. Improve the connections of the airports on the route and of the Atlantic ports (Brest, Nantes/St-Nazaire, La Rochelle, Bilbao, Santander, Gijon, Vigo, Leixoes, Aveiro, Sines) with their respective inland and Mediterranean regions (Genova, La Spezia, Venice, Trieste, Koper, Rijeka) so that these ports can constitute a new network of entry/exit doors for the continent, to complement the Northern Range.
6. Work towards energy transition by promoting the shift from the road and air to rail for travellers, and from road to rail for freight on this axis, in accordance with the objectives of the White Paper: ensure that the Via Atlantica takes up 30% of road traffic on distances over 300 km in 2030 and more than 50% in 2050, and most medium-distance passenger travel by 2050.
7. Work to reduce the energy bill, knowing that the Via Atlantica is the shortest path to link the Western Iberian Peninsula to Lyon.
8. Stimulate the development of railway infrastructures for transporting goods on existing tracks, in order to prime the traffic, pending completion of the Via Atlantica.
9. Support sustainable development by reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
10. Obtain recognition from the European Commission of the Via Atlantica and its branch lines as a priority axis (Core Network).
The observation of the limited rail access of the Atlantic coastline is shared by all. Jean-Michel Guerre believes that ALTRO’s proposal to link the Atlantic corridor to the Mediterranean corridor at Lyon, in connection to the Lyon-Turin line, is gaining momentum. It is thus that the continent will have a true East-West main axis.
For Jean-Michel Guerre, now that there is a consensus on the diagnosis, it is time for action and for making allies in order to reinforce the projects that are already scheduled, strengthened by the Via Atlantica. In the long-term, ALTRO aims at gathering and uniting all the communities affected by the Via Atlantica and anxious about their attractiveness and standing, so that all the stakeholders concerned are prepared for the revision of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) in 2023 an that the various links that make up the Via Atlantica benefit from the European backing... and its accompanying funding.
This conference should not remain a dead letter and should instead usher in a series of actions to obtain the European Commission’s recognition of the Via Atlantica as a priority axis.