Magazine article The Spectator

Last Tango in Paris

Magazine article The Spectator

Last Tango in Paris

Article excerpt


THE new TGV will run from sea to shining sea, linking the oil-swept Channel coast to the Bergasol-soaked beaches of the Mediterranean. The opening on Sunday of the Mediterranean leg of France's high-speed rail network will bring Marseilles within three hours of Paris, and train-envy to the commuters and transport ministries of Europe. An engineering triumph to rival Japan's bullet train, this 300kph lightning bolt of steel and glass will redound to the gloire of France as much as would any World Cup win or nuking of an unsuspecting atoll.

Downtrodden British commuters cannot hear the heart-rending statistics too often. France has one of the densest transport networks on the planet, with 146 kilometres of road and 6 kilometres of railway per 100 square kilometres. For just 62 francs (L39) Parisians will be able to swan down to the Cote d'Azur in three hours, knocking an hour and a quarter off the old journey. Waterloo-Marseilles will take six hours, two fewer than the trip to Inverness, which is less than two-thirds the distance but costs more than twice the price. If British trains went as fast, they would do Paddington-Oxford in 16 minutes, and King's Cross-Inverness in under three hours, rather than eight.

But such seemingly shameful comparisons do not tell the full story. Railtrack and the dastardly crew of UK train operators may hardly be a model of the efficient modern transport system. They may even be perpetrators of a world-class farce. But the French system is far from being without its faults. Some are obvious, indeed familiar. A train drivers' strike paralysed France this spring. The network in the Ile de France looks lethal. Traffic outstrips capacity. Rolling-stock is overdue for renewal. The violent assaults and gang rapes that characterise life in the Parisian suburbs often spill on to tracks and trains.

But the worst faults lurk beneath the surface. Few private transport companies can compete with a state-owned entity happily haemorrhaging public money. Ask the private airline AOM-Air Liberte, part-owned by Swissair. It is being run out of town by the new TGV Med at a probable cost of 7,500 jobs, leaving partly privatised Air France a clear field as an almighty monopolist on domestic flights. Above all, the system is mammothly loss-making. The losses partly reflect the scale of the network. France might be just four-fifths the size of Texas, but it is the largest and most sparsely populated country in Western Europe, covering almost a fifth of the European Union.

Plastering this huge expanse with 32,000 kilometres of high-tech railways landed the public network owner, the Reseau Ferre de France, with nearly 30 billion francs of debt in 1999, making it one of the most heavily indebted corporate entities in the world. It is bleeding heavily, losing 1.6 billion francs in 1999, despite a 1.5 billion francs government subsidy. As for the SNCF, which operates the trains, launching the Med link will push it into the red again this year with an expected 162 million francs loss to add to its own 6.5 billion francs debt burden.

All in, then, the taxpayer is sitting on about 37 billion francs of rail-related debt and taking on the chin annual losses of almost 3.3 billion francs. Hardly peanuts, even for Europe's biggest-spending state. And that is why the TGV Med will mark the high-water mark of gargantuan government spending. Even if big government survives for a while yet, the completion of the TGV network across the length and breadth of the country is the last of Mitterrand's Brands travaux - after the Opera Bastille, the new National Library and the Defense business complex - to come home to roost at the taxpayers' expense. …

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