Rail 596: Industry could learn some French lessons

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the contrast between the way that the railways are viewed here and in Europe. That was in evidence during the first weekend in July, when I travelled to Chamonix at the invitation of SNCF, the state owned French railway company, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of an unusual railway line, the Mont Blanc Express.

Normally, I eschew such jollies because, fun as they are, they take up a lot of time and are generally PR exercises with little purpose. However, I was intrigued by this one – why was SNCF so keen to send a group of journalists from the UK to cover what looked like an inconsequential little line? Indeed, why was the chairman of SNCF, the hugely impressive Guillaume Pépy, prepared to give up his weekend to be there?

The answers provide a fascinating insight into the difference between French and British attitudes towards the railways. The Mont Blanc Express is a fascinating bit of railway history but it is also, as we learnt, far more than that. It is a buoyant part of the local economy that is seen as a vital part of ensuring that local tourism can be as environmentally sustainable as possible. And that people have an alternative to the car when travelling along a congested valley road.

The building of a line between St Gervais, in the plain, up the valley to Chamonix at the foot of Mont Blanc and then through to Vallorcine and Martigny in Switzerland was first conceived in the late 1890s but, as with most such difficult projects, was long in the execution. To save money, the line was built to metre-gauge but the major innovation, which gives the railway genuine historic interest, is that electric traction – a third rail no less with 800 V – was used in order to overcome the one in 11 gradients that were necessary to ensure it could be built economically. Electric traction also allowed the Paris Lyons Mediterranée company, which built the railway, to dispense with the primitive and slow rack systems used elsewhere.

Once in use, the line is credited with stimulating the notion of winter sports by providing easy access to Chamonix, particularly for the British who were keen early skiers. The economy of Chamonix and the surrounding area boomed as a result.

Just over 25 miles long between St Gervais and the Swiss border, it is a fabulous railway with perilous bridges built over the raging torrent of the Arve and a near two kilometre tunnel near the highest point of the line which is over 4,500 feet above sea level. The scenery, of course, is breathtaking and the new trains have high windows in half the coaches to allow people to take in views of the highest mountain in Europe.

But the celebrations were even more fabulous. A coffee table book was published on the history of the line, there were speeches from all the local politicians as well as M Pépy, journalists were invited from all over Europe and the occasion was used to inaugurate a train, the sixth new unit to be brought in service. While it is easy to be cynical about such events, there seemed to be a genuine recognition that not only such railways need public investment, but they are an important part of reducing the environmental impact of transport.

I asked M Pépy what the purpose of the celebrations were and he replied that it was a way of relaunching the line, and to attract attention to the investment. M Pépy stressed that SNCF was not just about TGVs but it was also about community railways like the Mont Blanc Express whose future, in doubt barely a decade ago, was now assured given the importance of finding alternatives to car transport. The line had been saved, he said, partly by the efforts of the local 150 rail employees and the local population who saw its value and persuaded SNCF to invest in it.

He then went onto talk about the future of the line. There would be extra investment to provide a 20 minute service in order to make it far more useful for local people, new halts in order to provide skiers with access to the various cable cars climbing out of the valley and improvements to the track. He made no apology for the fact that taxpayers, local and national, provided about 60 per cent of the cost of the line in order: ‘We have to keep fares low in order to ensure that people use the railway’, he said. Already 500,000 people per year use the line on 34 daily trains and it is expected that this number will increase greatly, though there were no precise predictions. SNCF, together with the local regional council, Rhône Alpes, is expecting to spend 100 million Euros on these improvements, half of which has already been spent. M Pépy spoke lyrically about the railways, stressing their role at the heart of a more sustainable and efficient transport system, in a way that no one in such a prominent position here would articulate.

The weekend after the Mont Blanc Express celebrations, South West Trains held a party to celebrate the Lymington to Brockenhurst railway to celebrate its 150th anniversary. There was a bouncy castle and Morris dancing, and a speech from the company’s managing director Stewart Palmer.

This is a commendable effort from SWT and the company deserves praise for highlighting its heritage, something which other operators are often loath to do, but it shows the limitations of what can be done with the present fragmented system. I was not there but I certainly doubt whether the nearest equivalent to M Pépy, Mike Mitchell, the boss of the Department for Transport’s rail division was there to give a speech extolling the virtues of rail as an environmentally friendly way to help us out of both the energy and the fuel price crises. No, he wouldn’t anyway, because the Department is ‘modally agnostic’ uninterested in whether more people use the railways. Nor did anyone announce a major programme of investment working with the local councils. France may be just across the Channel but sometimes it feels like it is on another planet.

Being sensible about scanning checks and machine guns

When Alistair ‘do nothing’ Darling was transport secretary, he staged a disgraceful exercise at Paddington and a couple of other main line stations purporting to show a new security device that could be used to search people going on trains. At the time, I wrote a piece for the Daily Mirror (available on my website) wondering what Darling was playing at. It was difficult to see it as anything other than a kneejerk reaction to the 7/7 bombings and one which, on any close examination, was patently nonsensical.

Clearly attempting to screen every passenger on the rail or underground is impossible. Even if a few thousand per day were screened randomly, delaying them of course, that would represent a tiny percentage of all travellers. Yet, at the time, departmental briefings were suggesting that this was part of a long term plan to scan all long distance travellers. Yet, each individual check took 80 seconds and the exercise was a dishonest bit of political posturing.

Now, however, in a far more low key way, the Department, guided clearly by the British Transport Police, has retreated from trying to claim that mass screening will ever be a possibility and, instead, funded a few new portable X-ray machines for the BTP that will provide something of a visible deterrence. ‘Portable’ is a bit of a misnomer. These machines have 250 kilos of lead in them which means they cannot be humped up and down any stairs but they have their own power source, which is useful given the lack of 13 amp sockets in many stations. They can be transported relatively easily on a special vehicle from station to station and will be deployed at various large stations across the country.

Despite their limitations, they may well have a useful, if limited role. They can be used to scan bags quickly and in a non-intrusive way, that is likely to be far more acceptable to the public, especially women. Although there is no pretence that such a device will ever catch a terrorist planning to blow up a station because the odds of the machine being in use at just the right time are rather like those to win the lottery, the use of the machine is deliberately meant to be high profile. There is no suggestion that it will ever be used to check on every one or even on a high proportion of Tube or rail users but instead, people whose bags are to be screened may either be selected at random or because a police officer assesses them as a potential risk. Interestingly, the BTP has conducted some 140,000 searches under what is called Section 44 – which means searches for which the police officer does not have to give any reason for choosing that particular person – and only received ten complaints, suggesting that procedure has widespread public acceptance. .

The British Transport Police deserve praise for the way it has thought through these issues. Note, for example, that you will not see BTP officers with machine guns at stations, unlike, say at Heathrow or the House of Commons where you soon find yourself staring down the barrel of an Uzi-type weapon held by a Metropolitan Police officer. The BTP may not announce it, but clearly its senior officers have realised that having police officers with machine guns in public places is inappropriate and, indeed, counter-productive. After all, it is impossible to think of any situation in which they may be used in a crowded area without the likelihood that innocent people will be put at risk.

The counter argument is that it is a deterrent but Mr Al-Qaeda, who remember is happy to die in the cause, will know that it is virtually impossible for these officers to pull the trigger – or, that if they do so, there could be several ‘friendly fire’ deaths. Frankly, the Met should rethink its policy and accept that the public does not feel reassured, but rather threatened, by having machine guns on the streets, even those wielded by police officers. And let’s hope we continue not to have them in stations and that the nonsense about ‘airport style’ scanners has been buried once and for all.

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