HSR in France

Am aerial video of a high-speed rail line under construction in France.

A video, taken from a helicopter in early September, of the construction site of a short stretch of high-speed rail line in France. (Source: the contractor’s website.)

The existing LGV-Méditerranée line line runs from Paris to Avignon, where it forks. One branch runs SE to Marseille. The SW branch will eventually go to the Spanish border, linking up to the Spanish line to Madrid, but it currently stops at Nîmes. (French TGV trainsets run perfectly well on electrified legacy track, at under half the top speed.) The extension under construction will take it to Montpellier.

The line consists of 60km of high-speed track, plus 20 km of cheaper ordinary links. It will cost €1.8bn, or €22m a kilometre. You can spend that much on a road, but only in mountains. The Nîmes-Montpellier bypass is on flat land. The cost does not include a new railway station outside Montpellier. It is driven up by the many roads and watercourses to be crossed in the densely populated coastal strip between the Massif Central and the sea. It is also raised by the decision to make the line dual use, for fast freight as well as passenger traffic, requiring wider spacing between tracks and heavier-duty foundations. Freight also calls for flatter gradients, which doesn’t apply here, and wider curve radii as freight trains can’t tilt.

Would the cost have been lower under under direct public financing rather than a build-and-operate contract? Yes. Governments pay a lower rate of interest: interim financing costs are €230m of the total, and the contractors will get a rent when it’s finished that is presumably higher than servicing a state loan would have been. The German-drafted EU Stability Pact probably ruled this out.

The video is impressive, but should also be sobering for Californians. Construction has started on the HS rail line in the Central Valley, the easy bit, but far away from the conurbations the line is intended to serve. There is no proper financing plan for the whole thing, or even a fixed route. This is a recipe for exploding costs as communities near LA and San Francisco will demand ever more expensive amenity fixes like trenches and tunnels.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

12 thoughts on “HSR in France”

  1. And I still don't understand why it is going to Palmdale. And no one ever mentioned that they would be tunneling under a forrest, for reasons I don't understand. Public opinion seems pretty much against it now. I love trains and I'd love an explanation but the people running the thing don't seem to be good at that.

  2. Advert for my pet idea for saving a miserable few tens of millions of $. Put a ton or so of high-amp batteries in the trainsets, enough to give them a few miles of autonomy, no more. That would save putting catenaries on many miles of lightly-used sidings for maintenance. Likewise you could drop them in stations, improving the view and lowering risks.

    1. In my defense?… I haven't been sleeping well. Did not follow this in the least. Neither the Google nor my Webster knows what a "trainset" is, unless it is a train set. Catenary is the shape of a curve made when you hang a string at both ends?

      I know what a battery is … (though I only recently learned, the hard way, that you are *not* supposed to leave them in your flashlights… did everyone else know this? they are supposed to be just kept *nearby.* So they don't leak. !!! And ruin your flashlights.)

      And the siding is how they switch trains from the main track, when they need to change direction, or I guess be fixed or cleaned?

      Still not getting it … and I did watch the video, yesterday when I had no excuse for being dense. Oh well.

      1. According to the "Train" article kept by Mr. Wikipedia:

        "Similarly, the term trainset refers to a group of rolling stock that is permanently or semi-permanently coupled together to form a unified set of equipment (the term is most often applied to passenger train configurations)."

        Your definition of "catenary" is correct, but in railway lingo it refers to the overhead wires that supply electric power to the trains that run beneath.

        1. Oh, thanks!!! That is very helpful.

          This is my theme today and I'm going with it. Want to hear something reeeeally dumb? i used to ride Amtrak a lot… and I don't think I ever once noticed the wires or where power was coming from, or any of it. I noticed there was no steam or coal smell or cinders. But otherwise, the "how" was not thought of. Just the scenery.

      2. A trainset is what you buy for high-speed rail instead of a locomotive and separate carriages: a permanently connected group of around five passenger carriages and two motive units.

        There was a time when Americans understood trains. Kipling set his ".007" steam locomotive story in the USA.

        Kipling thought that "one hundred and fifty-six miles in two hundred and twenty-one minutes" was fast. It still is on the Trans-Siberian. The technology changes, but the spirit lives on, When the SNCF took a tuned trainset out in April 2007 on the new line to Strasbourg before it opened. and set a new steel-on-rail speed record of 574.8 km/h (357 mph), they were so far above the 350 kmh design limit of the track that the latter had to be repaired for weeks afterwards. Because la gloire, Real Men – and the glamour of rail itself. Kipling again:

        With a michnai — ghignai — shtingal! Yah! Yah! Yah!

        1. Interesting. I wonder if it's possible for a train to be too fast? I can't imagine what 357 mph feels like… unless it feels like flying? Is speed more perceptible in a train I wonder? One is still attached to the ground.

          1. I can't do you 357 mph, but here's a Youtube video of the Shanghai airport Maglev train at 431 kph/268 mph. As you'd expect, the video is quite short. At such speeds, and the lower 300 kph ones of most current HSR, the foreground turns into a blur, but you can orient yourself normally to landscape features a few hundred yards away. On steel rail there is a fair amount of vibration, as in an aircraft. The great thing is that they are still trains: as in 1850, you can walk around, or go to the bar.

          2. Thanks be to Providence for trains and dining cars. I'll check out that link.

            One time, I was on the San Joaquin (9+ hours and goes down middle of Cali) … and it *ran out of food.* I bet that never happens in Europe. Poor little Amtrak. It deserves so much better.

          3. Sadly. I can confirm that real train food – in a dining car with a white tablecloth and a waiter like Yves Montand and a femme fatale like Eva Green – more or less disappeared in Western Europe around the time high-speed trains arrived. The exceptions are first class Eurostar, and very expensive nostalgia tourist traps like the Orient Express. What you get now is sandwiches from a trolley, or if you go to the bar, microwaved pizza. The general rule is to stock up in the station first. The Trans-Siberian still has the real thing, though the matriarch running it is far from Vesper Lynd.

          4. I had a fairly decent osso buco on the Coastal Starlight from Seattle to L.A., about 16 years ago. OTOH, the trip was so rough that my now ex got tennis elbow from bouncing off the walls, we were down in a mountain valley during the promised sunrise over the ocean, and I got to see the back ends of a lot of factories.

            Actually, as an engineer, that last wasn't so bad.

            I later calculated that for the cost of those tickets I could have rented a nice convertible for the drive, eaten in only the best restaurants, stayed the night in a 4 star hotel, and not only come out cheaper, but having beaten the train's time.

            But the osso buco was pretty good, I have to give them that.

          5. Well, so few of us look like her. Well, Eva Greene version of her. I'm not sure I've read that Bond book. Just the Vegas one.

            Btw… great video, thanks!!! That was fun. It really moves. Holy cow.

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