France expands rail empire

TGVs are a hit abroad, but have led to second thoughts at home, reports John Lichfield
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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a time (admittedly a century ago) when British engineers and exports ruled the railway lines of the globe. In the past month, the French have not only beaten all comers at our national sport, they have comprehensively proved that they are the reigning railway-export champions of the world.

Last week the Australian government announced that it had selected the French technology of the Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) for a brand new 170-mile railway line from Sydney to Canberra. Two weeks ago, Taiwan rejected competing bids from the Japanese Shinkansen and the unproven technology of a levitating magnetic train to award a provisional contract for a 200- mile TGV line the length of the island, from Taipei to Kaohsiung.

In Australia, the contract to build and maintain a new generation of 200mph TGV trains, marginally faster than the Eurostar, will go to Alstom, which is a part-British company. In Taiwan, the rolling stock and signalling contract will be shared with the German company, Siemens. In both cases, however, the bulk of the technology, and the jobs - apart from the heavy engineering - will be French. The state-owned French railway company, SNCF, hopes to be involved in running the two systems.

The French TGV technology, now 18 years old, was slow to sell abroad at first. No longer. In recent years, it has been selected for a high- speed rail link from Madrid to Seville and, in principle, for inter-city projects in Florida and the north-eastern United States. French-designed high-speed lines are under consideration in China and Canada. Even Britain has finally settled on the course of its first - and most likely only - TGV line from the Channel Tunnel to the London suburbs.

There is, however, something of an irony in the accelerating popularity of the TGV abroad. In the past two years, the virtue of the Train a Grande Vitesse, once the sleek-snouted symbol of French technological prowess, has been increasingly called into question in France.

There have been local and environmental campaigns against the line under construction in the Rhone valley from Valence to Marseilles. The northern line to Lille, the TGV-Nord, with its branch line to the Channel Tunnel, has proved a reasonable success for Eurostar but less so for the SNCF and the depressed northern French cities it also serves. Rail traffic from Paris to Lille, an easy journey by road, has increased by only 10 per cent.

The incomplete, forked line towards the west and south-west, the TGV- Ouest, is too short to make much difference; there are no immediate plans to extend it.

The huge investment cost of the 800 miles of TGV lines already built - cutting straight across country with roller-coaster gradients and few tunnels or curves - fell almost entirely on the French taxpayer. The investment was justified on environmental grounds, on regional development grounds and as a way of "decentralising" the most centralised nation in Europe.

The original 300-mile line from Paris to Lyons has been an unmitigated triumph, pulverising the road and air competition. It has been so successful that the SNCF built a new generation of double-decker TGVs to accommodate all the would-be passengers on the hourly, two-hour trains between the two cities. The service is one of the few on the SNCF to make a profit (if the cost of building the line is excluded), and the environmental saving in car fumes and airport departure slots has been immense.

The extension to the south, which has already reached Valence, is a more doubtful proposition, however. Even when fully open, cutting the journey time to the Mediterranean to three-and-a-half hours, it is unlikely to replace air travel to Marseilles and the Cote d'Azur. The new line is accused of carving an ugly gash through the lovely but crowded Rhone valley, which already has two railway lines and a motorway.

Southerners say the TGV-Sud is being built mostly for the benefit of holidaying Parisians; they would rather the money was invested in accelerating the snail-like conventional trains along the coast (which taking more than three hours from Marseilles to Perpignan).

They have a point. Far from decentralising France, according to an official study of the benefits of TGV, the fast tracks have drawn even more wealth and people and influence into the Ile de France. Far from binding the country together, they have divided Gaul into two parts: the rich, metropolitan types on the bullet-nosed trains and the people in between who watch them flash by.

Undaunted by this evidence, the city of Strasbourg, 300 miles east of Paris across mostly empty country, has waged a ceaseless campaign to be connected to the TGV system. All the studies, official and unofficial, suggested that such a scheme would be a high-speed white elephant unless the Germans built the connecting lines across the Rhine, and those have been indefinitely postponed.

Nonetheless, the Jospin government announced in February that it would go ahead with not one but two lines to Alsace: a pounds 1.8bn west-east line as far as Lorraine (90 per cent paid for by the French taxpayer) and, most probably, another north-south line connecting Mulhouse to the Rhone valley. The fact that the Socialist-led government's culture minister and official spokesperson is the former mayor of Strasbourg and that the transport minister is a Communist and former railwayman may, or may not, have influenced the decision.

In any event, these could turn out to be the last big TGV projects until well into the 21st century. Official studies have suggested that the 1,200 miles of other high-speed lines once contemplated by the SNCF (likely cost pounds 20bn) are economically and environmentally unjustified. With French public spending bound by the new EMU rules, it is difficult to imagine early decisions to build the TGV lines or branch lines to Brittany, Normandy, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Perpignan, Chambery and Nice, or the direct line to Calais.

Even the SNCF has been forced to admit that the TGV technology has been overtaken; or at least that it may only make sense on 200-300 mile journeys between large centres of population. On other lines, the tilting trains developed in Italy, Sweden and elsewhere (based on an idea which British Rail could not get to work properly) are a cheaper and more sensible proposition. They do not go so fast but they do not demand new lines.

The SNCF is trying to develop a tilting TGV which would have the best of both worlds, speeding along the new tracks and then branching off at somewhat lower speeds on to the network built a century ago. If this concept can be made to work, there would be little point in building new TGV lines to such isolated conurbations as Toulouse or Bordeaux.

Here is the ultimate irony, perhaps. France, which invented the TGV, is too big, empty and scattered a country to make the concept work properly. It may be fine in Taiwan or Korea or the north-eastern US.

It would have worked especially well in one other European country, where more than half the population lives within a potential one-hour TGV ride of the capital. Britain.