Things are different abroad

I spent a hectic weekend going to Chamonix and back by train to join in the celebrations of the 100 years of the Mont Blanc Express, an interesting little electric metre gauge railway which travels up the valley from St Gervais, through Chamonix to the Swiss border and a bit beyond.
As I have written in my forthcoming column for Rail magazine, it was worth going just to see how differently things are done in France. I could never imagine a British railway company going to such lengths – producing a book, inviting foreign journalists, having the chairman of the main railway company hosting the event etc – to celebrate a relatively obscure railway which carries a mere 500,000 people per year.
SNCF’s chairman, Guillaume Pépy, was eager to show that his company is not just about TGV and new lines, but also about small railways that serve local communities and tourists throughout the country. It must be noted that there are some pretty lousy bits of the SNCF network in less famous parts of the country than the foot of Mont Blanc, but Pépy was clearly sending out a message both to his customers and his 220,000 staff: far from cutting back and hiving off branches, the railway is here stay and that there will be investment throughout the network.
Indeed, the journey back, by a rather roundabout route on a regional train from St Gervais to Lyon – and then a TGV from Lyon to Paris that takes less than two hours – showed just how the whole French railway is booming. The regional train had a three car modern Bombardier unit, very comfortable and clean, and was packed with standing room only for much of the journey which, admittedly, was on a Sunday night. There were big pluses – comfortable train, functioning clean toilet, very few announcements – but negatives too – no buffet car, overcrowding, and some rather long recovery time stops at small station.
Overall, though, it was an impressive experience. The TGV was virtually full, with a thousand people in a Duplex unit. Pépy talked about a plan to double the mileage of the LGV network over the next dozen years and there is no doubt that the railways are seen as a crucial part of the government’s plans to reduce transport’s carbon footprint. As I have said in Rail, It is a long way from the mealy mouthed ‘modally agnostic’ statements we get here.

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