Commentary. A landslide will block rail traffic for months. Few are even mentioning the most disturbing and damaging effects that are looming on the already-toxic horizon: life-threatening pollution from high levels of congestion.

High pollution: The abrupt wakeup call for a deadly economy

Stop the world, we need to get off. Some events come with a jolt like when someone pulls the emergency brake, and those who have been snoozing are startled awake and realize we have a problem.

This time, it was a landslide that stopped the locomotives pulling a failed development model that is on a collision course with reality. As a result of the August 27 landslide near Maurienne, the Savoie prefecture and the French railways announced the closure of rail traffic between Italy and France until June 2024. No passage via Frejus, end of the line, see you again next summer.

The “economic and productive world” – of goods and mass tourism – expressed serious concern. The numbers tell the story, and it’s not complicated to translate them into euros and “growth” down the drain: for the next eight months, French TGVs and Frecciarossa trains bound for Paris will remain at a standstill, as will the 170 freight trains that use the route in question every week. This “inconvenience,” which will affect all of northern Italy, is made even worse by the total closure of the Mont Blanc Tunnel until December 18, due to renovation works that cannot be postponed.

The economic actors affected – i.e. the Chambers of Commerce of the northwest regions – are making appeals that sound like prayers, “that all efforts be made to speed up the restoration of the rail lines.” Few, however, are even mentioning the most disturbing and damaging effects that are looming on the already-toxic horizon: the rail blockage in the area which, ironically, was touted as the future of high-speed rail (remember the TAV?) will cause enormous congestion from road traffic in the Po Valley, the wider region that is the most polluted in Europe. Is anyone worried about this? A number of life-and-death metrics suggest that it would be appropriate to be concerned also about these social costs, which will weigh heavily during the prolonged rail paralysis across the Alps.

According to WHO data, between 2016 and 2020, at least 246,133 people died prematurely in Italy due to pollution – which in this part of the country is always well above the warning levels indicated by guidelines. According to a very recent study conducted in Germany, no less than 73 percent of Italians live in the 58 cities where the concentration of fine particulate matter exceeds the limits set by the WHO. During the 2018-2022 period (thus with less traffic due to the pandemic era), the territories of northern Italy recorded the most worrying increase in pollutants of all the 27 member countries of the Union.

As for the cost of air pollution in Europe, it’s estimated as 166 billion euros per year (in Milan, the per capita cost of this tragedy is 2,843 euros per year). That’s something to focus on, beyond freight or vacation packages. And what about the ecological transition? No worries, there’s no need to rush: they‘ll just bring out convoys of replacement buses to shuttle vacationers to the ski resorts.

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