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

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

Share
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

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

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

John Rentoul
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...