Apologies for those of you expecting a tirade about some aspect of the bus industry. This post reports upon a different transport obsession of mine, but bear with me as i attempt to make a point.
Although it may be considered divisive in these times, a longstanding refrain of transport campaigners is to repeat their mantra of public transport always being better on mainland Europe. Whilst monopolised public sector systems have their advantages, they also suffer some disadvantages, such as usually being slow to respond to changing passenger demand and a lack of impetus to address their failings where there is no alternative.
Travel writers often enthuse about French railways, citing the speed of the TGV as something unparalleled in Britain. My interest in the subject was piqued a few years ago for quite different reasons and i set about researching. After doing plenty of reading (and making extensive use of Google Translate where my GCSE French failed), there is a story not being told. For over a decade SNCF have invested almost solely in their glamourous express lines, preparing themselves for the opening of the railways to competitors. As a result, closures of branch lines have been happening at a pace which would make Dr Beeching blush.
Going rotten in the middle
Away from the prestige of the TGV and Intercités lines, the Limousin, Nouvelle Acquitaine and Auvergne regions of Central France have seen at least half a dozen local (TER) lines close in the last fifteen years. Occasionally planned, but more often as a result of “safety inspections” or infrastructure failures which conveniently allow SNCF to declare an unrealistic sum for reopening or refurbishing. This then often leads to arguments between regions where lines cross borders, in a similar fashion to how county councils seem unable to agree about cross boundary bus services.
Video: France 3 covers protests at the “suspension” of service on the line between Limoges and Brive-la-Gaillarde via St Yrieix. Full article here.
Whilst the closure of some branch lines might be considered economically sensible in this sparsely populated part of France, several of the lines closed constitute the only rail links between major connurbations. The city of Limoges has been particularly badly affected with routes to Clermont-Ferrand and Angoulême being severed (both following safety inspections, citing issues such as poor rail geometry) and one of the two routes to Brive-la-Gaillarde being broken in the middle following a landslide on the approach to a viaduct.
The landslip which closed the line through St Yrieix (Source: France 3 news report)
Further east, as well as losing services to Limgoes, Clermont-Ferrand has lost services to Saint-Étienne and the spa town of Le Mont Dore. During 2012/3, the line to the town of Volvic was renewed and improved to full double track in order to allow better services, yet the services which would run beyond Volvic to Montluçon, Limoges and Le Mont Dore were abandoned in 2007, 2014 and 2015 respectively, leaving an awful lot of shiny new infrastructure to serve a meagre six passenger trains a day on weekdays.
Another observation is that these lines are mostly east-west routes linking towns and cities which aren’t Paris.
It’s grim up north
This story of railway abandonment isn’t just about sparsely populated railways weaving their way through rural areas. On the 14th December 2019, the suburban railway from Lille to the border town of Comines will run for the final time. This line has a surprising number of parallels with our local Severn Beach line from Bristol, although where the latter has been seized upon by the community as a facility that must not be lost, the line from Lille to Comines has been eroded by several factors.
The Comines line runs only at peak times and during the summer period was restricted to one return journey per day. A flat fare of €2 is in operation on the line, severely restricting potential income from fares. Speed on the single line has been restricted for safety reasons to a pedestrian 40km/h, although it is still considerably quicker from end to end than the bus service which parallels it.
In contrast, if we look across to the north bank of the river Leie, the Belgian side of the town (which has the Flemish version of the name – Komen) has hourly Intercity trains to Ieper, Kortrijk, Brussel and Antwerpen.
As i have found many times with French politics whilst reading on this subject, the process seems to be that a facility must be closed (and usually left for several years) before any decision is made regarding replacement. There are some press reports regarding a light rail replacement, although no firm plans have been exposed from beneath the numerous layers of bureaucracy. There seems to be no perception of any importance in retaining a continuity of service.
So why have you told us this?
I draw parallels between the priority given to long distance express services by SNCF and the French government to the level of neglecting local traffic and the boom in interurban rail and coach travel in the UK while local bus networks are being left to fend for scraps, simply because the government’s policies favour the glamour of longer distance travel.
I find myself increasingly frustrated by calls to regulate, control and nationalise services in the UK, when the main reason for failures at present is the complete lack of any funding to support or kickstart services. As an sector, the British bus industry has had both legs and an arm chopped off whilst being told how colletively crap we are at performing a triple jump.
I seriously doubt that the British public sector is capable of planning and executing transport services which most effectively address the transport needs of the public. There is certainly no hope of services being delivered with any efficiency nor cost effectiveness. If France, a country with a civil service which employs over 21% of the active population and a history which has never seen the skills to develop such services in anywhere other than the public sector, cannot organise an effective railway, then how do we expect Avon County Council, or any other local authority to productively reconstruct a bus network from scratch?