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Alain Boublil Blog


The High-Speed train : a French success

Forty years ago, precisely on 1981 September 22nd, François Mitterrand inaugurated the High-Speed line between Paris and Lyon and delivered in Le Creusot a decisive speech in favor of the re-launch of the construction of the necessary infrastructures to the country equipment, which has been the starting point of the exceptional development of this new mode of transportation. If this anniversary has been the occasion of a ceremony to which the President of the Republic attended and of a large media coverage, very few comments were maid about the major turnaround operated in the France railway policy at that precise event and which is at the origin of the success which has just been celebrated.

During the Sixties, it is the Japan with its industrial power and its innovations which occupies the world front scene, exactly as China today. To achieve that, it has been able to develop new and competitive products and has realized on its territory ambitious projects which are used as showcases. The most spectacular among them is the high-speed line which connects the two biggest cities of the archipelago, Tokyo and Osaka on which a revolutionary model of train, the Shinkansen, rolls at a high speed. The inauguration occurred during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Games. But the spread between wagons wheels was larger than the one in a normal train, which limited its circulation to dedicated lines.

In France, the SNCF has closely observed this project and has the ambition to give to itself at its turn connections which allow to reducing travels durations. Two solutions are in competition. The first one is revolutionary, the Bertin engineer’s one who proposes to build lines above the ground on which would circulate the “Aerotrain” as it is already nicknamed. The other one is more traditional. Specific lines would be built which would allow a high speed circulation but to the difference with Japan ones, the wagons could also travel on the traditional network, which would allow larger connections on the territory. It is this solution which is adopted during the Georges Pompidou mandate and works start in the Seventies. But they are stopped by the Raymond Barre government in 1977 who cancels the achievement of the last part of the Paris-Lyon track between the Combs la Ville and Saint Florent villages and forbid any study about new lines.

We will have to wait for the 1981 September 22nd inauguration and for the announcement by François Mitterrand, after having consulted the SNCF executives that the State was favorable to the re-starting of the studies about new connection projects toward the West of France, to see the high-speed train takes at last its expansion. During forty years, it will be the lines toward Le Mans and then Nantes, toward Tours and after Poitiers and Bordeaux, toward the South-East with Lyon bypassing and the arrival to Marseille, toward the North, Lille, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne, the connection with London through the Channel tunnel and at last toward East with Reims, Metz, Nancy and Strasbourg and Zurich. To that was added the birth of the network concept with the creation at Massy-Palaiseau of a connection between the different lines. The success was huge and was measured by billion of travels. It is that which was celebrated during the commemoration ceremonies.

High-speed train has also been the source of a formidable wealth creation. It has facilitated the implantation and the development outside of the Paris region of economic activities. So it has decisively contributed to the regional development. It has also increased the attractiveness of the regional metropolis when they were connected to the network and generated an increase of real estate prices. You just have to look at notices. When the asset is located near a station where a High-Speed train makes a stop, it is indicated as a powerful selling point. We could regret that these wealth creations have not directly profited to SNCF. It was the owners of these assets and the enterprises which took profit of that. But the State, through taxes has got back a good share of it. So its decision to take a large share of the SNCF debt, 30 billion, it had contracted to finance its high-Speed train investments is quite justified.

That will allow the company to going on the development of its network along with dedicating new resources to the local lines which had not constituted in the past a priority. It is the sense of the announcements of the President of the Republic in favor of the Bordeaux-Toulouse and Marseille-Nice lines; he inscribes himself into the logic of his distant predecessor and goes toward the reduction of the greenhouse gas emissions because the power production which feeds the network has, thanks to nuclear plants, very low CO2 emissions. So he corrects the mistake done with the support to bus transportation. Not only these ones pollute and can cause accidents but through the selection of the most profitable destinations, they weight on SNCF financial results.

The success is less obvious regarding industrial issues because Alstom did not know how to take all the benefits, especially in China. The modernization the Middle Empire launches during the Eighties goes along with large infrastructures programs. The Japanese and mainly French examples inspire its political leaders. Alstom is then present there because the company makes the turbines which equip the first nuclear power plants in the country. It could have offer to its Chinese counterparts a partnership putting at their disposal its experience, which would have made them winning time and would have profited to everyone. Wrongly believing they risked to be deprived of their technologies, the group executives preferred to continue to go alone. Chinese industrialists were able to go without them and, in thirty years, have built and managed the largest High-Speed network in the world. So Alstom, at that time missed the train and remained on the platform.

The High-Speed train success is plenty of lessons. The first one, it is that an innovation, whatever is its nature, meets success only if it corresponds to its client expectations. Regarding mobility, we will see if electric vehicle meets these criteria. Until now, it is far from being the case. The second one, it is that the market cannot do everything. No private enterprise, concerned about its short and even mid-term profitability, could have gone in such an adventure. The SNCF, with, at the beginning, the State support has been able to launch its project. The withdrawing of this support in 1977 has provisionally condemned it to immobility from which the enterprise has only been able to emerge thanks to a major government turnaround. The same scenario reproduced itself five years ago when critics against the “High-Speed train monopoly” largely made surface. They have not resisted a long time after the spectacular success of the put into operation of the last part of the track connecting Paris and Bordeaux. The third lesson, and by far the most important, is that the progress is always possible and that growth can be quite compatible with the environment improvement and, in that precise case, with road safety. Millions of tons of CO2 are, every year saved and, atop of that, we cannot evaluate the number of lives which have been saved thanks to the evolution of the travels modes made possible by the High-Speed train.


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