Andrew Martin: I'd let the French run our trains

Their approach to railways is at once hard-headed and romantic

Related Topics

Brace yourself for some business news. A company called Keolis is bidding for the InterCity West Coast rail franchise, currently operated by Virgin. Keolis is majority owned by the French state rail operator SNCF, and it is thought the bid might herald a pitch by the same company to run the London-Birmingham High Speed Two line when that is completed.

I hope Keolis wins both bids, partly because I am in favour of anything that reduces the chance of seeing a picture of Richard Branson grinning. But mainly because the French approach to trains is at once hard-headed – they make the rich pay for them through income tax, rather than putting the burden on the fare-payer – and romantic.

The French do not have trainspotters; they have perfectly normal people of both sexes who share la passion du chemin de fer. These people do not munch Penguin biscuits on windy platforms, but eat proper meals in good restaurants, as I discovered when I rashly agreed to buy lunch in Paris for an expert on the Paris Metro, who, after unerringly selecting the most expensive dish on the menu (trout in morel sauce), pronounced, in Latin, "Prometheus's children are transported in the underground inferno by the power of Jupiter", which is a quote by Fulgence Bienvenue, who built the Metro, and said that sort of thing more or less every day. Any network that has a station called Barbès-Rochechouart is going to be beautiful, and indeed the Metro approaches the French overground railways for sheer style.

But nothing can match the sleek TGV expresses. They look like bullets, and clearly mean business. Their front ends do not have to be painted in day-glo, as is the requirement on our insipid railways. (Are you really going to get out of the way of a 190mph train any faster because it is yellow?) My favourite station is the exotic Gare de Lyon. The whole of the Côte d'Azur is latent in that, just as the whole of Salford is latent in Euston. But I also love wintry, moody Gare du Nord: "In the morning, the first night trains, arriving from Belgium and Germany, bring in the first load of crooks," wrote Georges Simenon.

I assume that if Keolis won the Virgin bid, some of these principles of elegance would be applied. That would involve scrapping the garish, cramped Pendolino trains (the "vomit comets" according to one online commentator), or at least making sure the seats, as opposed to the luggage bays, are correctly aligned with the windows. If Keolis won HS2, I would simply expect the service to work, so that the fat drivers of fat four-by-fours would stop thinking they were atop the peak of British transportation.

Andrew Martin's book 'Underground,

'Overground: A Passenger's History of the Tube', is published next month by Profile

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Data Migration Lead

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Experienced Lead SAP Data Manager Requir...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Graduate Recruitment Resourcers - Banking Technologies

£18000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: Huxley Associates are looking...

Implementation Engineer

£150 - £200 per day: Orgtel: Implementation Engineer Hampshire / London (Gre...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise  

The UK economy may be back on track, but ordinary people are still being left behind

James Moore
The Independent journalist James Moore pictured outside Mile End underground station in east London  

The true cost of being disabled goes far beyond just the physical

James Moore
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform