“We are jealous. We are very, very jealous,” the British Rail man said. “It’s impossible to imagine anything like this ever happening in Britain. We invented railways, but our damned governments lost interest in them decades ago.”
The French official smiled and patted his British colleague on the hand. “Maybe,” he said. “One day.”
It was the spring of 1981, just before France’s first high-speed line opened. I’d boarded my first Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV), and the beak-nosed, orange locomotive had whooshed a group of foreign journalists and railway folk to the temporary terminus of the new 180mph Paris-Lyon line in rural Burgundy.
For the BR man it was infuriating. For Europe it was the dawn of a new age.
Britain invented railways in the 1820s to 1830s. France re-invented them in the 1980s. Although Japan was the first country to build very high-speed lines in the 1960s, it was France’s somewhat different TGV model that caught the world’s imagination.
High-speed lines have since spread across China, Spain, Germany and Italy. Lines have opened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Turkey and South Korea. Morocco has one. Even Britain has one and is about to start building a second.
The high-speed line from the Channel Tunnel to St Pancras opened in stages between 2003 and 2007, copying French lines in every detail. HS2, the new line from London to Birmingham due to open in 2026, will also be built to French specifications.
This is to be linked with a new but lower-speed line across the North (HS3). There may eventually be an extension to Scotland (HS4?). Some even dream of a new line to the west (HS5?).
All these lines offer the prospect of fast, green travel for millions of people over many decades – decades during which the environmental case for rail over road and air should only strengthen. But still, a question arises.
After nearly 40 years, France is being forced to reconsider and in some cases abandon or downgrade its plans for new, high-speed railway lines. A report last year concluded that at least one existing line was losing money and had no economic justification.
Almost half of the €50bn accumulated debt of the state railways, the SNCF, comes from the failure to finance TGV lines properly. One wing of the SNCF – the equivalent of Network Rail, which owns the lines – has been forced by successive governments to charge low “toll fees” or track charges to the other part, which runs the trains.
So the question is this: is Britain, after several decades’ delay, copying French mistakes rather than French successes?
I am a great enthusiast for railways. The steel-wheels-on-steel-rails transport model invented in Britain two centuries ago is entering a New Railway Age, not vanishing as many would have predicted in the 1970s. I believe the environmental and capacity case for building HS2, and further new lines, is unanswerable.
But the French experience suggests that a more logical and sustainable approach, in a small and crowded island like Britain, would be to prioritise capacity over speed.
When train speeds are pushed over 240km/h (150mph), the green case for rail starts to erode. A “very high speed line”, with its long and infinitely gentle curves, is also greedier for land than a merely fast one.
For these reasons, the great pioneer of high-speed railways is shifting to a flexible, less costly, less speedy model for three new lines. They will pass through the same kind of densely populated countryside penetrated in Britain by HS2 parts 1 and 2.
The fast but not super-fast approach is being adopted for projected routes for the late 2020s and early 2030s along the Côte d’Azur from Marseille to Nice, between Paris and Normandy, and between Montpellier and the Spanish border. This revised concept offers extra capacity and higher speeds without the full cost or environmental and social impact of a full-bore 320km/h (200mph) or, eventually, 350km/h Ligne à Grande Vitesse (LGV).
The new French model is too late to affect decisions on the first part of HS2, but could – and perhaps should – influence choices on the second part of HS2 and whatever comes later. HS3, the Northern Powerhouse line, is already conceived as a fast but not super-fast line.
In the meantime, France faces another confrontation with railway reality – on its slow lines.
Shortly, a senior civil servant, François Philizot, will present a study on the fate of over 9,000 kilometres of little-used railway lines in France. Philizot’s brief recalls that of Dr Richard Beeching, Chairman of British Railways, who in 1963 recommended the closure of 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometres) of railway lines and 2,300 stations in Britain. Most but not all of the Beeching cuts were made. Many of the closures were inevitable, but others were short-sighted and are now being reversed (the Scottish borders line; Oxford to Cambridge).
The French network was never as dense as Britain’s, although France was the second country in the world to build railways. Rural lines have been axed, starting in the 1930s, but there has never been a strategic plan for French branch-lines and secondary routes.
Two fifths of all rail lines in France now carry fewer than ten trains a day. Something like half – over 4,500 kilometres – of France’s lignes de desserte fine (lines of local access) are operating at emergency low speeds because the track is old and unreliable. Thirty lines have already been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.
I travelled recently on a spectacular 277-kilometre line from Cantal in the Massif Central to Béziers on the Mediterranean coast, which has one daily passenger train each way.
The two French rail conundra are connected. The enormous sums poured into the TGV revolution since the late 1970s came at the cost of low investment in both suburban rail networks and rural lines. Even the great Paris railway termini have been neglected. A series of computer and electrical faults, traced eventually to old equipment and inadequate maintenance, has forced four lengthy closures at the Gare Montparnasse and one at the Gare Saint-Lazare in the last two years.
Between 1990 and 2015, according to SNCF figures, almost two fifths of all money spent on railway infrastructure in France – €30bn – went on high speed lines. Of the €3bn needed each year to keep the “traditional” network in good order, the SNCF spent just over one third until alarm bells started to ring in 2005.
They are ringing again. Whatever the Philizot report recommends, President Emmanuel Macron and his government will be unwilling to “do a Beeching” and close thousands of kilometres of rural French railway lines. The Gilets Jaunes rebellion is fading, but the anger in Peripheral France that spawned it still smoulders.
The concentration on TGVs at the expense of local and suburban lines in the last 40 years is a microcosm of what has happened to the French economy. Metropolitan centres – from Paris to Bordeaux, Grenoble to Toulouse – have boomed. Smaller cities and towns have struggled.
The network of high-speed lines has shortened the travelling time between the bigger cities. Many medium-sized or smaller towns feel bypassed or left out. Much of France has become a kind of “speed through” country, equivalent to the “flyover country” in the big square, central states left out of America’s coastal prosperity.
Paris is now three hours from Marseille, instead of seven pre-TGV. Bordeaux is two hours away instead of four and a half. TGVs have shortened the journey times to cities not directly on the new network, such as Nantes, Brest, Toulouse, Toulon, Grenoble and Nice. But other towns – even large ones like Limoges, Clermont Ferrand and Caen – feel cut out of the post-TGV map of France.
In last 40 years France has built 2,651 kilometres of high-speed lines, from Paris to Lyon, Rennes, Marseille, Bordeaux, the Channel Tunnel, Strasbourg and the Belgian border. There are also connecting lines around the capital, between Avignon and Montpellier and from Dijon towards Alsace.
To achieve high speeds, initially 300km/h, now 320km/h, eventually 350km/h, the lines are built with exceptionally gentle curvature, which increases their foot-print, their impact on their surroundings and their cost. On the other hand, the power of modern locomotives means that the gradients can be steep. Travelling in the cab of a TGV feels like riding a roller coaster at high speed over the earth’s surface.
The Alsthom-built French high-speed train, in its original and later double-decker versions, is a remarkable piece of engineering. A large part of the weight is in the giant bogies (i.e. four-wheeled, swivelling undercarriages) that span the gaps between the coaches. This makes a TGV as flexible and as solid as a snake, unlikely to topple over or telescope if an accident happens at high speed.
In 38 years, there has yet to be a single passenger fatality on a French high-speed train while travelling on a high-speed line – not something that the lighter, less firmly coupled Chinese or German high-speed trains can boast. Both have had terrible accidents at speed with multiple fatalities. Both are lighter, cheaper and more popular with train buyers.
Commercially, the TGV had a rocky period six years ago when 70 per cent of its services were making a loss despite the low track charges imposed by the government. A new commercial strategy, dividing services into Ouigo (low cost) and inOui (more upmarket) has brought a boom in passengers and made many services profitable again. Some lines – notably the TGV Est, which passes through the largely empty country to Strasbourg – have never made a profit and are never likely to.
The French transport minister, Élisabeth Borne, is a former SNCF executive. Nonetheless, she has developed a medium- and long-term transport spending programme, which scraps several TGV projects.
Only one new, fully high-speed line – a 245km extension to Toulouse of the present line from Paris to Bordeaux – is now firmly planned, compared with a grand plan for 2,000 kilometres of new high speed track in 2008. Three other routes, long promised, are now described in the official proposals not as Lignes à Grande Vitesse but Nouvelles lignes.
Little has been made of this shift in France, even though it represents a significant retreat from the “all TGV” ambition of eleven years ago. Still less has been made of this change in Britain, even though it throws a shadow on some of the arguments for HS2 in its present form.
Pascal Perri, an economist and expert on French railways, says: “There is no demand and, frankly, no need for very high speed in these areas. There is, however, an urgent demand for greater rail capacity. New lines can be built much more cheaply if you’re not demanding the space and elaborate engineering for a high-speed line.”
This would have been a cheaper, less intrusive, more generally accepted model for HS2. It could still be a persuasive model for future high-speed projects in Britain.
France might, in return, learn something from Britain’s mass and indiscriminate destruction of “low speed” rural railways a half century ago.