Over 150 years after the current railway was laid, the region could be about to sign off on plans for a brand new track.
The Côte d’Azur has a serious problem: there is so much traffic that it has begun to infringe on the quality of life here. A railway project promises a remedy in the long run, but politics and public opinion are slowing down its chances before it has even begun. The south of France is the most under-served region in the country in terms of train travel. Plans to build a new TGV line between Nice and Marseille have been in the discussion phase for decades, but there has been little progress.
Since the current route between Nice and Ventimiglia was opened back in 1860, not much has been done to modernise the two-track line, which is forced to handle all areas of transport: local, long distance and freight. In the middle of the 19th century, around 1.6 million people lived in the region. Today that figure is more than three times as many – and that doesn’t count the many millions of tourists who vacation here each year. This equated to some 2.6 billion train journeys in 2015 and a growing population of around 18,500 each year.
Over the years, Riviera Insider has reported on the many different routes a new line could take. Perhaps it would go through the perfume fields of Grasse or cut a path into the vineyards of the Var… All have been rejected for one reason or another. Since 2011, the general consensus has been that two different courses will be needed - a high speed TGV and an urban TER - to combat the ever-growing issue of traffic and air pollution in the French Riviera.
Routes & complications
The current plan indicates a second inland line that will compliment the coastal route we already have. However, in recent months it has become apparent that both of these tracks will be managed by the slower TER utility rather than a Ligne de Grande Vitesse (similar to the TGV). The change has been driven by the need for improved localised service for commuters.
Planners have introduced the idea of more train stations and stops, with widespread use of tunnels to reduce the impact on the landscape. The project has been divided up into stages: Priority 1 routes between 2022 and 2030 (for the most urgent locations such as the Alpes-Maritimes and Marseille); Priority 2 between 2030 and 2050 (for Aubagne, Toulon and the Siagne region in the Alpes-Maritimes); and Priority 3 thereafter for links in the east of the Var and the Nice-Italy route.
It is simply impossible to extend or add to the existing track in most places: its course passes through areas of outstanding natural beauty and many are just a stone’s throw from the sea. The track is forced around obstacles such as the Estérel mountains and squeezed through dense, inner-city areas. It also fails to serve a number of sites that are in desperate need of alleviation, such as the chronically gridlocked Sophia Antipolis technology park.
For the Alpes-Maritimes, the prevailing plan is to build an additional track just back from the coast: leaving from Nice Airport and travelling through Villeneuve-Loubet or Biot to serve Sophia Antipolis and perhaps Vallauris before ultimately syncing up with the Cannes-Grasse line.
Despite it providing a solution to frustrating road traffic, all of these areas are heavily populated. Residents are outraged at the idea of a railway passing right by their front doors. Even Chanel has entered into the fray, arguing that a route taking an aqueduct above Pégomas in the Siagne valley will damage the flower fields that the perfume industry has depended on for hundreds of years. It is, however, worth noting that such a route won’t be tackled until at least 2030.
Controversy is aplenty too with regards to the location of a Sophia Antipolis station. Mougins’ mayor Richard Galy was initially interested in housing it, but has now changed tack. It could have gone in the heart of the technology park, in the Les Bouillides district, but this was also rejected. Biot is totally against it. The Le Fugueiret quartier is looking the most likely – at least for now.
Aila Stöckmann & Elsa Carpenter