A Beaucoup Snafu: France’s $68 Million Train Mistake
Business + Economy

A Beaucoup Snafu: France’s $68 Million Train Mistake

The French find a way to make Amtrak look good.

REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

Schadenfreude may be a German word, but it’s never quite so enjoyable as when applied to the French. How else to explain the wave of U.S. coverage of France’s “$68 million mistake”: buying a fleet of more than 1,800 new trains, scheduled to go into service over the next two years, that are too wide to fit into hundreds of existing stations.

However low-budge and half-arsed of a passenger rail line you may think Amtrak is, at least the trains fit between the platforms.

The trains are slated for France's regional network, and cost more than $20 billion. The cost to refit the stations so that the trains fit will be about $68 million.

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This "tragicomedy," as French transport minister Frédéric Cuvillier put it, happened because the new trains were designed to meet international standards, but 1,300 of France's regional train platforms were built before international standards were in place. Réseau Ferré de France, the country’s rail network operator, didn't take this fact into account when it sent Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais, France's national railway company, station dimensions for the new trains. And SNCF didn't bother to double check RFF's numbers. 

Alterations are currently under way. Some 300 platforms have already been changed to fit the new trains. In most instances, the problem is that trains are several centimeters too big for the stations. But in some instances, two of the new trains would be unable to pass each other on opposing tracks.

Commenting on the bungled order, RFF head Jacques Rapoport admitted that the problem was discovered "a little late." Rapoport's colleague at RFF, Christophe Piednoël, added: "It is as if you bought a new Ferrari and you realize that it doesn’t quite fit in your garage because you didn’t have a Ferrari before.” A colorful analogy, but still not a very good excuse for what happened.

Here's the French government's take: Under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, France's railway system was split into two parts — a train operator, SNCF, and a network operator, RFF — to try and make France's railway system into a more competitive enterprise. Instead of making things more efficient, the split has made things more confusing. Hence, the current administration, under socialist President Francois Hollande, is trying to reverse that split. 

“The point of our railway reform becomes clear when you see the current state of dysfunction of the railway in France,” said Cuvillier, according to the Financial Times.

Whether it's planes, trains, or automobiles, engineering standards change over time, and the stations would probably have had to be altered anyway. And $68 million isn't much when you put it up against the $20 billion price tag for the trains, but the issue of out-of-date stations and insufficient track separation couldn't have come to light in a worse possible way.

Trains can be a civilized alternative to air and automobile travel. No one forces you to half undress to board a train. There's typically more leg and elbow room aboard a train versus a plane. And while traffic jams on the railways aren't unheard of, they're much less likely there than on the roadways.

There's a good PR story and advertising campaign for Amtrak — no paragon of efficiency itself — somewhere in all this. One possible slogan? "Amtrak. At Least We're Not SNCF."

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