Let's get on board a model railway

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The Independent Online

I recently spent 40 minutes at a small railway station in Switzerland: 40 minutes of free entertainment.

I recently spent 40 minutes at a small railway station in Switzerland: 40 minutes of free entertainment. Passenger trains came and went spot on time, like cuckoos popping out of clocks. Two long, mixed freight trains - remember those? - were shunted in and out of sidings by a pair of tiny locomotives and a medium-sized crowd of railwaymen. A smart, strawberry-red, electric locomotive arrived with a mail train - remember those? - and collected a container-wagon full of letters, parcels and postcards from a bay platform.

The whole thing resembled a giant model railway. I was reminded of my days as a train spotter in the 1960s, when Britain still had a proper railway with sidings, shunters and mail trains of its own. I left Switzerland on a TGV for Paris, which arrived, as TGVs do, precisely on time. The French system of Trains à grande vitesse is now 24 years old and has carried more than a billion passengers with no serious accident and no fatalities.

By the beginning of next year, the French network of high-speed (180-200 mph) lines will have a new arm to the east. The new route will reach - with doubtful economic justification - across the steppes of eastern France to Metz and, ultimately, to Strasbourg and Germany.

Economics, now there's a thing. Of course, the French subsidise their railways, both openly and less openly. The Swiss also. We, the British, obey sensible economic laws. That is why our economy is outstripping those of most other European nations. Of course. I have always been good at collecting numbers, but not so good at adding them up. Here are a few figures which, as far as I can see, don't add up at all.

Economically shrewd Britain has been upgrading its West Coast Main Line, which connects the five largest cities in the land by rail. Economically feckless France is building a new high-speed line to the empty east. Economically shrewd Britain will - by the most recent of a series of yo-yo estimates - spend £7.5bn on modernising the existing Euston-Glasgow line. If you include the loop to Birmingham and the branches to Liverpool and Manchester, the railway is roughly 1,000km long. Even I can work out that the bill amounts to £7.5m a kilometre. Work started in 2000. It should be finished, three years late, in 2008.

By that time, economically shrewd Britain will have a "new" old railway line with trains capable of going at 125mph (a little faster than they do now) instead of the 140mph that was originally promised. By next year, the economically feckless French will have completed a completely new railway line, just over 300km long, for €3.9bn (£2.7bn). Trains on the new line will travel at 320kph (200mph). The work will have been completed in four years, on schedule, at a cost of just under £9m a kilometre.

How, you may ask, is it costing the feckless French £9m a kilometre to build a new 200mph line, when it is costing the shrewd British £7.5m a kilometre to upgrade a 19th-century line to 125 mph? There are four tracks and many junctions on the West Coast Main Line. There are train-operating companies which need to be compensated (why?) for line closures. Much work happens at night, which is costly in wages. But still, the figures are hard to swallow.

At French prices, Britain could, for £7.5bn, have built an entirely new, high-speed line, with a couple of branches, connecting London and Glasgow in two-and-a-half hours (instead of four-and-a-half hours with our "new-old" line). Such a line might, admittedly, have cost rather more in a crowded place like Britain. It would also have been more useful, relieving pressure on the most overrun roads, railways and airports in the country.

The French invented the Trains à grande vitesse, but it would have been an even sounder economic and ecological proposition in cramped Britain than in the open spaces of France. It is probably too late now. We missed the train, in the anti-public investment, anti-railway, road-obsessed 1980s and early 1990s.

We are left with absurd bills for bringing our existing lines up to speeds the French might snigger at - if the French were not such a polite people.

Powerful plonk

Damned clever, the French. They have just devised a plan for converting vintages into voltages. There are now 200,000,000 bottles a year of surplus low- and medium-price wine in France (exports are slumping; domestic consumption is slowing). Imaginative new uses are being sought for the contents of the wine lake.

The state-owned electricity board, EDF, has signed a contract to buy 200,000 tons of distilled wine a year from 2007. The alcohol will be fed into six power stations, creating enough electricity to run a town of 40,000 people. The economics of the operation are debatable, but the partially wine-fuelled power-stations will help France to move towards the EU and Kyoto target of 21 per cent of "clean" electricity by 2010.

In future, maybe, French electricity will come in two types: not AC and DC, but rouge et blanc.

Plus ça change...

Isabelle Adjani, the Franco-German-Algerian actress, was the president of this year's César ceremony, the French Oscars, and made a short political speech. The AFP domestic French-language service reported her words as follows: " 'I the Algerian, I the German, I the Frenchwoman, I am obsessed with these recent outbreaks of racism and anti-Semitism. We have just commemorated the liberation of Auschwitz. We cannot commemorate enough this genocide or all genocides,' thundered Isabelle Adjani, who was dressed in a pale-pink dress, in Empire style, made by the house of Emmanuel Ungaro."

And the prize for sexist non-sequitur of the year goes to...