Life on the fast track: Thirty years of the TGV

France's high-speed trains are the envy of the world. But are plans to expand the network moving too fast?

France's most successful, recent contribution to world civilisation, the high-speed train, is 30 years old this year but its future is increasingly disputed in its own homeland.

The achievements of the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) are beyond doubt. Over 1.7 billion passengers have been carried on high-speed lines in France since September 1981, without a single death or serious injury.

The express passenger train, once regarded as a defunct form of transport, is now seen as a viable, safe, green alternative to the plane on five continents. High-speed lines are in use, or planned, from China to the US and from Argentina to Morocco.

A Europe-wide network is under construction in France, Germany, the Benelux, Spain and Italy. Even Britain, which invented railways but ignored high-speed lines for three decades, is finally joining in. A high-speed line from London to the Channel Tunnel was opened in 2007. And the Coalition Government is committed to building a new, high-speed railway from London to the Midlands by 2025.

All of this began, arguably, with the departure of the first TGV from Paris to Lyon, decked out in a shocking shade of typical 1970s orange, on 27 September 1981. Although Japan pioneered high-speed railway lines from the 1960s, it was France which captured the world's imagination by developing a robust, 150mph – and now 200mph – train capable of travelling very fast indeed on special lines, and quite fast on conventional tracks. Crucially, this both cut the capital investment cost and expanded horizons by allowing TGVs to use existing big city stations and to serve a multitude of final destinations.

All the same, a relatively low-key programme of events was announced in France this week to fete the 30th anniversary of the TGV. A specially equipped train will tour the country to boast the achievements, and future, of high-speed rail. Er, c'est tout.

Although France now has 1,900km of high-speed lines, and has ambitious plans to triple the network in the next three decades, the French railway system as a whole finds itself in something of a mess.

The older, French non-high-speed and suburban lines are poorly equipped and maintained, partly because investment has been channelled into TGVs. Four new lines, or extensions, are due to be completed in the next nine years but one-third of the existing French high-speed lines loses money.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's ambitious, environmentally driven plans for further new lines or extensions to Normandy, Italy, Spain, Limoges, Toulouse, Nice and a more direct line to the Channel Tunnel by 2040 are running into financing problems because of the recession and France's high budget deficit.

The economics of the TGV is also challenged by EU rules, which insist that France must open its existing lines to (mostly German and Italian) competition in the next few years. Although the TGV idea has been copied around the world, France's rail manufacturing industry is facing increasingly stiff competition from Germany and China for the building of the lines and trains themselves.

The French state railways, the SNCF, were described recently as "decaying... facing a financial impasse... and heading for the wall." These remarks were made, not by a rail-hating spokesman for the car lobby, but by France's leading professional, railway enthusiast, the plain-spoken president of the SNCF, Guillaume Pépy.

Mr Pépy remains an eloquent spokesman for the future of railways. But he warned in an interview in Le Monde that France – often portrayed abroad as the model for modern rail travel – was in danger of going too fast in the construction of fast lines. If it was not careful, it would shunt the TGV idea into an economic siding, he warned.

Ownership of railway lines and stations in France was shifted in 1997, to comply with EU rules, to a separate, state-owned company, RFF (Réseau Ferré de France). The cost of building TGV lines has partly fallen on the RFF – the equivalent of Network Rail in the UK. Its accumulated debt – €28bn (£25bn) and rising – has led to a backlog of investment on ordinary lines and a sharp increase in the "toll charges" demanded from the SNCF for using high-speed lines.

As a result, standard TGV fares have soared (up by 100 per cent in the last decade, compared to around 30 per cent for car and plane travel). Mr Pépy warns that the whole basis of the high-speed rail revolution – that the TGV should be the "normal" means of travel, not just something affordable by the business elite – is under threat.

"Building four new lines at once [extensions to Brittany, Bordeaux, Strasbourg and Montpellier by 2020] is very ambitious when you consider we have usually built them one at a time," he said. "The risk is that the charges demanded by the RFF [to run trains] will explode... We risk having longer and longer high-speed lines which are used less and less."

There are lessons here for Britain's own high-speed railway plans, but not necessarily negative ones. The first French TGV lines, linking Paris with large conurbations like Lyon, Marseille and northern France, have broadly been an economic success. The proposed new line to Birmingham and, eventually, the North of England and Scotland will link an even bigger series of conurbations.

Hervé Mariton, a parliamentarian in Mr Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party, warns that problems arise when high-speed lines are built across vast tracts of little-populated country for essentially political reasons, such as the French high-speed line to the east, opened in 2007 and due to be extended to the German border in 2015.

"We must have the courage to say that some of our planned projects are just not feasible," Mr Mariton said. "Even some of the lines we are already committed to build are more about political will than economic reality."

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