John Lichfield: Shunted off in a tale of two railways

While British trains are a byword for chaos, vision and flair are the French way
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While we curse our railways, the French celebrate them. And expand them. The Grand Palais, the enormous exhibition hall just off the Champs-Elyses, has been turned into a virtual railway station until next week, housing rolling stock and artistic displays to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the SNCF, the French state railway system.

To mark the occasion, Guillaume Ppy, the dynamic deputy head of the SNCF, and head of Eurostar, invited a few Paris-based European journalists to lunch. For someone such as myself, who is not afraid to admit that he was once a trainspotter and remains a great enthusiast for railways, the exhibition L'Art entre en gare was a delight.

So were M. Ppy's bubbling enthusiasm and vision for railways as a transport system, not of the past, but of the future. His vision is all the more exciting or depressing if you prefer against the background of the latest tangle of rail-engineering delays and line closures in Britain.

Not all recent developments on Britain's railways have been bad but we no longer, it seems, have anyone capable of making strategic decisions, or inspired guesses, about the shape of the eco-friendly rail systems that we need. Two centuries, almost, after we invented railways, where are our Stephensons or Brunels? Or even our Ppys?

Guillaume Ppy hopes that the French government will make the development of railways and especially high-speed railways one of the principal themes of its presidency of the European Union in the second half of this year. In particular, M. Ppy hopes that Paris will be able to persuade its European partners to back the latest bright idea to come from the SNCF: high-speed overnight goods trains.

Most of the high-value, next-day-delivery business, handled by FedEx, DHL and others, goes by air. The SNCF has been working with Air France and FedEx on the possibility of using high-speed railway lines at night to capture much of this traffic for rail (and reduce the level of carbon emissions per parcel by as much as 80 times). M. Ppy hopes that the idea called "Carex" can be spread Europe-wide, as Europe's high-speed rail network expands.

A couple of high-speed double-decker parcels trains on the new fast line between Paris and London would carry as much overnight cargo and parcels traffic as two jumbo jets. At present, the fast line to the Channel Tunnel is closed at night for maintenance. So are all the high-speed railway lines in France.

M. Ppy and the SNCF want to use these lines, after midnight, for a few high-speed "cargo express" trains. If spread across Europe, he believes that the idea would not only reduce carbon emissions but also radically reduce the cost of overnight letters and packages. The SNCF, FedEx and interestingly Air France have already commissioned preliminary studies for double-decker, TGV cargo trains, capable of carrying everything from a postcard to a full-size freight container. Such a network would help to reduce the noise nuisance of freight flights in the early hours. It would reduce transport carbon emissions. It would strengthen the economic and environmental case for the building of further high-speed railway lines.

The SNCF is already planning to introduce night TGV trains later this year. These will be "party" trains, aimed at young people who, as M. Ppy says, associate traditional overnight trains with "the smell of socks". On the new high-speed trains, bookable only on the internet, passengers will not be expected to sleep: they will dance, watch films, play games, or "do anything they like so long as it is decent".

"Only 12 per cent of Europe's carbon emissions come from transport," M. Ppy says. "But that 12 per cent is enormous. Everyone knows that it is going to be difficult to reduce the carbon footprint of industry and home-heating. All eyes will turn to transport. It will simply no longer be acceptable, in 20 or 30 years' time, that short-haul journeys between European cities are conducted by air transport. There must be a more rational division between the use of aircraft on medium - and long-haul journeys and high-speed railways for short-haul journeys."

What does M. Ppy mean by short haul? He suggested that all journeys up to at least 500km (or 300 miles) should naturally become rail journeys. In France and increasingly in Italy, Spain and Germany the high-speed lines are being built or planned which make that vision possible. The SNCF is already in discussion with the Spanish railways to create a new service from Brussels to Madrid, using high-speed lines in three countries.

By 2020, France should have 3,000km (1,864 miles) of high-speed railway line. President Nicolas Sarkozy recently promised that studies would commence on the building of another 2,000km of lignes à grande vitesse by 2030.

The extra lines are likely to include a new link across the breadth of the south of France from Toulouse to Nice and a second line to the French entrance to the Channel Tunnel, passing through Amiens instead of Lille. They are also likely to include a second trunk line from Paris to Lyons, to relieve Europe's first high-speed line, opened in 1981, which is approaching capacity.

All of these new lines may, if marketing and engineering studies prove positive, be constructed with their double tracks further apart. This would allow the SNCF to run a new generation of TGVs with service speeds up to 360km/h (224mph) instead of 280 to 320km/h on existing lines.

How exciting. How depressing.

The rebuilt London St Pancras station is magnificent but is likely to remain the terminus of a high-speed branch line. Given the muddle over routine maintenance of Britain's overburdened railway network, what is the hope of this, or any, British government taking the courageous, strategic decision to build lignes à grande vitesse to the north of England and Scotland?

If M. Ppy is right, air traffic between London and Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds even Glasgow will be politically and ecologically unacceptable in two decades' time. One strategically placed high-speed line up the spine of Britain could link 80 per cent of the nation's population. The cost of building such a line would be immense. So will be already is the cost of not doing so.