The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Rail-Friendly France Turning Its Back on TGV

If high-speed rail works anywhere, it should work in France. The compact Gallic “hexagon”, as the French often call their country, is densely populated, and many of its cities are in the sweet spot for high speed rail: close enough so that a fast train competes effectively with air travel yet far enough away that speed matters. The whole country is more or less like the Northeast Corridor in the U.S. And since French companies make the equipment used on high speed (TGV) lines, the idea of government-subsidized high-speed rail propping up both jobs in industry and promoting economic growth in regional centers makes sense. Certainly, compared to alternative ways to spend government money, it is a relatively elegant solution. This is exactly the kind of magic American high-speed rail enthusiasts hope to capture.

But just as states like California are doubling down on high-speed rail, France is taking a step in the opposite direction:

While 300,000 people take the TGV in France each day, some [five million] use the rest of the system, highlighting why priorities have changed.

With estimates that some 30 per cent of high-speed rail lines are not profitable, SNCF [France's state-owned rail company] is not planning further domestic expansion beyond the four projects already under way: extensions to Brittany, Bordeaux, Strasbourg and Montpellier. The government and audit office have also put a block on new projects, as part of efforts to repair the country’s balance sheet. [ . . . ]

The days of building high-speed lines across large tracts of underpopulated country for political reasons appear to be coming to an end.

If they’re turning away from the technology in a country like France, where the conditions for high-speed rail approach the ideal, then American politicians who govern territories that are decidedly less well suited to high-speed rail would be well advised to think twice before committing billions of dollars to flashy projects based on increasingly outmoded technology.

Even in France, High-speed rail is no longer the transportation system of the future.

Published on January 28, 2013 12:48 pm