Anthony Sampson: Arrogant yes, but the French know how to run trains

We built expensive Eurostar coaches, and then left them to rust in the countryside

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How delightful to start this on one of the fastest trains in France, gliding effortless from Marseilles to Paris at 185mph, arriving in just over three hours. How splendid to find so much choice in this new double-decker train, with special coaches for silence, sections for mobile bores, and a lower-deck compartment for smokers, sealed off from the rest. How agreeable in the comfortable buffet car to be able to choose between a hot croque monsieur and delicious salads, instead of between cold British sandwiches.

How delightful to start this on one of the fastest trains in France, gliding effortless from Marseilles to Paris at 185mph, arriving in just over three hours. How splendid to find so much choice in this new double-decker train, with special coaches for silence, sections for mobile bores, and a lower-deck compartment for smokers, sealed off from the rest. How agreeable in the comfortable buffet car to be able to choose between a hot croque monsieur and delicious salads, instead of between cold British sandwiches.

And how still more enjoyable to look out on the motorway alongside the track, and to watch the train overtaking even the fastest Mercedes, and to see the cars jamming up near the entrance to Paris, as the train races on towards the Gare de Lyon.

And the next day, on the Eurostar from Paris to London, how surprising to be gliding through Kent on the new, smooth high-speed track. Can this really be Britain, if the train is so fast?

Oh yes, it is, we realise as it finally slows down to the usual snail's pace at Surbiton to rumble erratically into Waterloo. And after changing on to South West Trains, there's no doubt: first there's a signal failure in Woking, then the train breaks down at Salisbury. We're back in Britain, all right: the country which invented railways, and which has forgotten how to run them.

Now back at home, Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, has announced yet another turnabout, after all the other turnabouts since British Rail was privatised. He will abolish the Strategic Rail Authority and give his own civil servants direct control over the long-term planning of the railways. Of course, it's a step in the right direction: at least now we know where responsibility lies, and the Government accepts the need for a single plan.

The problem is that many of our past failures began with the Department for Transport - which now has few people left who really understand railways. And few people believe that Darling really has the boldness or political clout to push through a serious revival of British trains - of the kind that the French have achieved.

When the sleek blue Eurostar trains first arrived at Waterloo there were high hopes that high-speed trains would extend into Britain, linking the rest of the country to Europe. But they were soon dashed by the car lobby, abetted by Mrs Thatcher. We built expensive Eurostar coaches and sleeping cars, designed to run from the North of England to the Continent, and then left them to rust in the countryside.

The plans for high-speed track were delayed and cut back, and there was no overall scheme. In a few years' time, travellers from Paris will at last arrive on fast trains at King's Cross - only to find themselves waiting forlornly for a rattling old Circle Line train to get across London, instead of the fast RER Metro trains which link the French stations and suburbs.

So why have the French done so much better in planning their transport? British politicians have always been clear about the reason: French railways are run by arrogant technocrats, who are much less bothered by democracy, and who can defy strict accountability, which would be intolerable in Britain.

And it is true that the cost to the French taxpayer is much more than it looks. Two weeks ago, a new crisis emerged in the financing of the French state-owned railways. The French deputy Hervé Mariton, who had presided over four months of hearings, revealed a "colossal" total debt of €41bn (£27.3bn), concealed by "unbelievably complex" accounting divided between three separate bodies, and based on dubious economic reasoning. And the debt would become much heavier after the massive plans to expand the French high-speed network over the next 20 years.

But the debts are not colossal compared to the debts of Network Rail in Britain, and French governments and taxpayers will almost certainly continue to finance the expansion. For they have seen how their railway technocrats and engineers have satisfied passengers and transformed the country, adding to the quality of life, bringing cities closer to each other, and improving the cities themselves. And they know that the benefits cannot be calculated by short-term balance-sheets or bottom lines.

But in Britain, despite Alistair Darling's new plans, the financing of railways will still depend on short-term solutions, subject to constant changes and pressures from private companies, as we have seen in the decade since they were privatised.

And the car lobby will still be given preference. Darling's latest proposal is not to put railway tracks alongside the motorways, like the French, but to put still more motorways there, which will raise money from tolls. While the French have real competition between cars and trains, the British favour competition between cars and more cars.

And the social consequences become increasingly clear, as British cities are disintegrating and being replaced by American-type "edge cities" totally dependent on cars, with long-term social and environmental costs which are incalculable.

So whenever I cross the channel - as often as possible - I still say, like Laurence Sterne in 1768, that "they order the matter better in France". The French technocrats may be an arrogant élite; they may fudge the figures and be less accountable than Darling's civil servants in the short term. But they have a much more genuine understanding of public service; they know how to run railways, and how to give passengers what they want, with a genuine choice. And in 20 years, they and their debts will all be forgiven.

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