Railways here and there

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I made a short business trip today to Woking, south of London, which means spending, in each direction and if nothing goes wrong, 20 mn in the subway, 3 hours in the Eurostar, 30 mn in a British train (Southwest Railways I think) and a mere 15 mn walk. For a day trip, that amounts to 8 hours and 10 mn of transportation time for 5 hours of actual face-to-face meeting time, including lunch. Since, after 9-11, flying has become a foretaste of hell on earth, this is fine with me. And considering that London Waterloo is basically at six subway stations from my flat in Paris, it sounds worse than it is really.

Except for the British part of the journey.

My UK colleagues always complain about their railways, telling me that each time they take a train, they have no idea when they will arrive, or if they will be able to get back home, if only they are lucky enough to get back alive. I thought they were joking. That was before I experienced the British rail companies.

On my first trip to London five years ago, the northern line of the subway went down because a wagon caught on fire. The line remained closed for 6 months. Several similar incidents happened in London's subway over the past years. For a parisian, London's subway is better in some ways (less junk, less cheaters) but is really frightening. And the railways, in a bad sense, have nothing to envy to the aging subway. Their privatization (was it by Margaret Thatcher?) led to a mess of companies preoccupied more by the shareholders profits than the infrastructure, which after years of virtually no maintenance looks today closer to one of a developing country than a member of the G7. When I set foot on a train in London, I have the impression I step a whopping 30 years back in time.

My train back from Woking was 20 mn late, "due to extreme heat conditions" said the computerized voice which, apparently, was also suffering from the temperature ("I a-a-a-am sorry for this delay"). 28°C (82°F), extreme heat conditions? It's been 37°C (99°F) in Paris (for the third time this month) and close to 42°C (108°F) elsewhere in France today and, as far as I know, it doesn't impact our trains schedules. The Eurostar was 25 mn late due to "lower speed limits due to high heat in South England". You would think that this fast, electrical train would not be impacted but since it shares the same slow tracks than the fossil-oil powered trains...

Last week, on July 30, the Eurostar set a speed record for a train in the UK at 334.7 km/h (208 mph). This will shorten the journey to 2h35 for a Paris-London trip. It could take only 2h if the train was allowed to run at its normal speed of 300 km/h all along in the UK. For any normally constituted (read spoiled if you are British) French man, watching all the fuzz about this record was rather laughable.

But before you deem this as an anti-UK rant, which it is not, let's take a look at where I come from: the wonderful world of tax-payers financed public service, and what it can afford.

On March 29, 1955, a French train broke a record of 330.6 km/h and opened the way for the development of our fast speed train program (TGV, Train à Grande Vitesse). The TGV holds a world speed record of 515.3 km/h (320.3 mph), set on 18 May 1990. Nowadays, you can cross France from Lille to Marseilles in 4h30. Or do Brussels-Marseilles in 4h42. Or Paris-Brussels in 1h15. Or Paris-Amsterdam in 4h11. Spain has a fast train too and is extending its span, which in a few years will cover most of the country from North to its South coast.

I don't want to close this post as a (biased) liberal politics vs. public service bashing. None of those methods are a sure win in all situations. But I'm not ready to forget the British rail experience when it comes to the privatization of our own public services, especially on such things as our nuclear power plants. I also would like to say to my British friends that I love the country, I just wish you would dump your trains and switch to the Euro.

Now is time to get to bed. It's still 27°C, I don't know how I'm going to fall asleep and the following dialog from Six Feet Under pops to mind:

Ruth Fisher: — You know Dave, there are people who live without air conditioning.
Dave Fisher: — Yes, in the third-world!