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Green protest forces Austria to abandon rail tunnel link

CONSTRUCTION OF the Semmering railway tunnel in Austria has been postponed indefinitely in the face of ecological and environmental protests.

The ill-fated scheme, intended to improve links between Italy, eastern and southern Austria and eastern Europe, began in 1986 but was held up by a barrage of threats of legal action from the region of Lower Austria.

'We cannot [continue to] run Austria's biggest illegal construction project, ' said infrastructure minister Michael Schmid, writing off the AusSch1bn ($66M) spent on what was intended to be a 14km tunnel.

A large part of the money was spent on drainage of the sporadically abandoned 1km pilot tunnel. This fuelled allegations that the tunnel would cause a permanent drop in the water table.

'It has been impossible to make the protesters see that the construction of the permanent lined workings would not affect the water table, ' said a ministry spokesman.

But a source close to the project said the adit and other geological investigations failed to show that water losses during the construction period would be as low as initially believed.

Protests strengthened after an alleged sighting of a rare corn-crake in the area of the proposed portal, although the World Wide Fund for Nature said it was extremely unlikely such a bird would be found in the mountains.

'But you only have to say that you have seen one of those birds to get anything stopped in Austria, ' said a ministry spokesman.

Austrian Railways fears that if the scheme does not go ahead, eastern European countries aspiring to membership of the European Union will improve their rail systems to bypass Austria en route to Ita ly.

Ironically, while Austria is now obliged to repay the EU grant it received for the Semmering tunnel, the new members of the EU will almost certainly be able to attract EU grants for a rail link to replace it.

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