Rail 566: France: speed and spending before structure

The imminent opening of France’s latest TGV route underlines the importance of making maximum use of our own ‘High Speed 1’, maintains CHRISTIAN WOLMAR.

A ride on the new TGV Est, which is due to open on June 10, shows just how far we behind we are in exploiting the potential of rail and how our obsession with the structure of the industry over the past 15 years has detracted from the real debate, the need to invest. The new TGV is not just a new transport system, but an engine of economic growth and international co-operation that is far sighted and far more valuable than its 5 billion Euro (£3.4bn) cost.

 There are, of course, doubters about the project. The line goes through sparsely populated areas of France and it is hardly surprising that the East was the last of the French regions to get a TGV. The value of the project was questioned at the impromptu press conference held by Guillaume Pepy, the boss of SNCF, on the train which was cruising at 200 mph (14 mph faster than the other TGV lines). After Pepy had explained that the train would increase rail’s market share of journeys between the French capital and Strasbourg from 30 to 70 per cent by nearly halving the present four hour journey time, the man from the Financial Times suggested this was rather a lot of money for such a small gain, basing his question on the paper’s usual assumption that anything which cannot be quantified in pounds and pence is worthless.

 Pepy painstakingly and patiently explained that the TGV was not simply about increasing rail’s share and cutting journey times. The local regions had contributed a fifth of the 5 billion Euros (£3.4bn) cost precisely because they realised the huge economic value to a relatively depressed region: ‘New industries are already looking to invest in Eastern France because of the TGV. And the line will be there for a 100 years or more.’ He contrasted the area with Normandy, where Caen, Le Havre and Cherbourg now seem further away from Paris than Marseille because they have no TGV connection. ‘We have redrawn the map of France’, he said, and indeed the press pack contains a rather unfamiliar shaped France based on time rather than distance, no longer hexagon shaped but a squashed up rectangle.

 Indeed, anyone who thinks that a nationalised industry can’t produce imaginative advertising and PR campaigns should study the SNCF’s marketing of the project. Pepy went over to New York to take part in a mock protest by a 100 strong choir against the fact that Europe was being made smaller by the high speed railways! As reported on the agency wire, ‘The “faux” musical rally elicited giggles and gawks from thousands of usually unflappable New York commuters, who simply couldn’t understand why the crowd would stand in the way of something that is improving the lives of millions of American tourists and European residents.’ Pepy, keeping a straight face said, ‘In the past, I have mentioned that our new high-speed trains would make Europe smaller. Unfortunately, this small group took this jest rather literally.’

 He is a hugely impressive figure, the sort of representative of the railways that we just cannot have in the UK any more. He is wonderfully impatient, too. I shared a car back to Paris with him and once we hit a traffic jam, he just fled to the nearest suburban rail station to catch a train: ‘I feel like murdering people when I am stuck in jams’ he quipped, looking at me rather ominously.

The 5 billion Euro cost of the project, which includes the train sets, the stations and some 200 miles of new line (part of the route remains on the old line), seems rather modest when compared with the £5bn cost for just out 67 mile high speed line (not including the train sets). That is part of the reason why I have argued here before, that it is too late for a major High Speed Line in this country. It would be too expensive and the benefits would not be as great, given that we already have a decent train service and we are a much smaller country than France.

I can’t see that the politicians will ever agree to the investment and the business case will prove an insuperable hurdle because our politicians, unlike their French counterparts, have never seen the wider benefits of rail as set out above by Monsieur Pepy. Moreover, the environmental debate is moving on, as we are becoming a world where limitless mobility will no longer be encouraged. However, that does not mean massive resources should not be committed to rail to improve the network and encourage people to forego their cars in favour of rail

 The French went down their high speed path 35 years ago when the TGV started to be developed and it is impossible for us to catch up. That does not mean, however, that we can’t create a future for rail that is just as exciting – well almost, anyway. And we could start by making proper use of what we have, our High Speed One to the Channel Tunnel and the Tunnel itself. In truth, the high speed line is not going to be very busy for many years to come, if ever. Sure, there will be the Kent domestic trains, but they are only being introduced to fill up the spare capacity on the line and it is questionable how many commuters will pay the extra to use them. The real purpose of the line should be to carry passengers further afield, reducing the pressure on airports by attracting people who would otherwise fly.

However, Eurostar will continue only to serve Paris and Brussels, apart from the occasional for tourists to destinations such as Disneyland Paris, Bourg St Maurice (in the alps for skiers) and Avignon. Amsterdam and Cologne, and several other towns in Germany and Holland would be obvious destinations.  When I asked Pepy why there are no plans to run Eurostar trains to any new destinations after the High Speed Line opens on November 14th, he said that the Eurostar trains are rather delicate and are probably best left on the tracks they already use. Moreover, there is a ban on other designs of trains such as conventional TGV stock or German ICE sets using because of the requirements of the Intergovernmental Commission which oversees safety in the tunnel. This is because the safety procedure for evacuating a broken down or burning Eurostar requires that the 18 coach train would be split in half – with people being walked into the functional part of the train and then driven out of the tunnel. When I suggested to Pepy that perhaps this crazy rule needed to be challenged, he sighed: ‘you know, they are civil servants, very high up ones, and it would be very hard. And then what minister is going to sign off such a change as they will be worried that there is an accident.’

I think this answer shows a lack of imagination and suggests that Eurostar is a bit smug, and its bosses cannot be bothered with making the effort to exploit the huge assets built at public expense which they command – the train sets, stations and line. Yes, the Intergovernmental Commission which is responsible for safety in the Tunnel is probably more conservative than the average Pope but that does not mean it cannot be challenged.

Not only is the evacuation ridiculously expensive to enforce, requiring 18 car trains to run at all times and prevents the wider use of the tunnel by smaller train sets, it is undoubtedly the wrong strategy for the safe evacuation of a broken down train. The Tunnel has a third tunnel down the middle, pressurised so that poisonous fumes do not get in it, and which was used when there was a fire in the tunnel soon after it opened. The notion that a Eurostar train should be split in the middle, a procedure that would be difficult even outside of an emergency, given the existence of the third tunnel suggest the plan was set out by bureaucrats who had never faced an emergency more serious than rescuing their cat off a tree.

The high speed line and the tunnel are underused assets on which a lot of public money has been spent. Eurostar ought to get together with Eurotunnel (a completely separate entity) and start a big lobbying campaign to change the crazy safety rules so that we can begin to make use of these extremely valuable assets that have been built at our expense. The worst advertisement for any new high speed lines would be an underused High Speed One.

Pendolinos in a spin

I know that the Pendolinos are wonderfully models of engineering but they still suffer from some major defects. Travelling from London up to Liverpool the other day, I found that near the shop, the corridors of both trains still stank – and I mean really stank – of old sewage. It was really nauseating and stems from initial problems with the Spanish designed toilets, but  I can’t believe that this problem has not been sorted out three years after the introduction of this stock. Interestingly, the staff tend to have become inured – or are taught to deny there is a problem – because when I remarked upon it, they told me they could not smell anything.

Moreover the PA system was faulty with every other word being lost, an amazingly irritating glitch, and the staff still have to use a paper reservation system even though there is supposed to be a computerised one. In the shop, the poor steward who happened to be 6ft 3ins was hunched over his counter, doing his back no good, because of the low ceiling and said that he banged his head ‘all the time’. Perhaps there should be a height limit for that job, the reverse of the one the police used to apply to recruits.

Finally, I managed to read for the first hour or so, but as we hit a series of curves in the Midlands I found it more and more difficult and eventually had to give up because I felt nauseous. A friend of mine who travelled from London to Glasgow recently said she was unable to read for most of the journey.

So yes, great in crashes, wonderful acceleration, but by no means an unmitigated success. Let’s hope that the lessons are learnt with the new HST replacement, now called IEP – the Intercity Express Programme –  currently being mooted.