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
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