by Richard Pooley
If you are British, and old enough to remember when trains could take you to almost anywhere in the UK on time, you may wish to stop reading. The same goes for those Brits who wonder why billions of pounds are being spent destroying woods, fields and villages to build a high-speed railway so that Londoners can get to Birmingham, and Brummies to London, twenty minutes faster than now. I am about to make you Brits angry, nostalgic or envious; probably all three. Especially angry when I tell you the people you will be envious of are the French.*
For those who are not British and for those Brits not yet sentient in the 1960s, the name Dr Beeching will probably mean nothing. Beeching was briefly the chairman of British Railways, a loss-making state-owned entity from 1948 to 1996. In March 1963 his report - The Reshaping of British Railways – was published. In it he recommended closing a third of the country’s seven thousand railway stations and withdrawing passenger services from 28% of the existing route kilometres. This, he argued, would make the railways profitable. In fact, by the end of the 1960s 9,600 route kilometres of railway lines had been completely scrapped, 54% of what had existed before Beeching wielded his axe. And the railways continued to make a loss.
Beeching’s proposed cuts inspired the 1963 Michael Flanders and Donald Swann song “The Slow Train”, which listed a few of the many little country stations expected to close. It lamented the passing of a supposedly gentler way of rural life:**
“No more will I go to Blandford Forum and Mortenhoe
On the slow train from Midsomer Norton and Mumby Road.
No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat
At Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street.
We won’t be meeting again on the slow train.”
But in France from June 2024
You will be able to go to Saint-Sulpice-Laurière and Guéret
On the slow train from Montluçon, Gannat and Saint-Germain-des-Fossés.
Because that is when the first of up to eight currently unused or under-used railway lines criss-crossing France will have trains running on it between Bordeaux and Lyon.
The full journey will take you seven hours and thirty minutes and cost you around €25 (no my fellow Brits, that is not missing a nought; that’s equivalent to £22). There won’t be milk churns or a porter, though a feral cat or two is almost certain. Nor will there be a restaurant car. But there will be sufficient time at each stop to buy wine (St Emilion in Libourne?), food (foie gras in Périgueux?), and more food (black cherry clafoutis in Limoges?).
What are the French up to? Three years ago a senior civil servant (and railway buff), François Philizot, published a report on the state of France’s regional railways: they were “near collapse”, under-maintained by SNCF, the state-owned French rail company, and shunned by the French public. Under President Macron’s predecessor, the Socialist Party’s François Hollande, about a thousand kilometres of track had closed and many more were expected to follow. Philizot recommended that this policy should be reversed and that, whilst a few lines would still have to close, most should be kept and upgraded.
Enter Railcoop. This is the cooperative set up to use these unloved lines by running passenger and freight trains averaging 90 kph. As of 9 February this year Railcoop had 13,776 members – local authorities, companies, railway workers, and many people looking for a greener and cheaper alternative to the car to get to work or to the shops. It is also hoped that visitors to France will take the opportunity of travelling slowly across some of the most beautiful parts of the country. I am already dreaming about travelling on most of the proposed route from Caen to Toulouse (having taken the train from Bath to Portsmouth and walked on to the ferry to Caen). I would stop off for a night in Tours, Poitiers and Limoges, before arriving at Brive-la-Gaillarde, only 30 km from my house in the Lot village of Vayrac (25 km of which can also be travelled by train).
I wrote the following in an article in July 2021 (https://www.only-connect.co.uk/post/travelling-hopefully-in-the-time-of-covid) :
“Our house is just 400 metres from the single-track railway which heads east up the Dordogne valley into the mountains of the Auvergne. When we bought the house in 2013 a train stopped twice a day at Vayrac’s tiny station. Villagers could and did commute to and from Brive. Then it was decided by some far-away bureaucrat that the train should stop just once. Its custom vanished and so it was decided, probably by the same jobsworth, that there being no demand, no train should stop. Two years ago there was a rethink: President Macron, no less, decreed that rural communities needed to be served by the state-owned railways if they were to survive. Covid has backed him up. Our ex-mayor, now an estate agent, told us that demand for houses in this area has soared. How are these new immigrants to be encouraged to get around other than by environmentally-bad car? By train, of course.”
In the same article I mentioned that my wife and I usually travel in these green-conscious times to our house in Vayrac by train – Bath-London-Paris-Brive. The 420 km trip from Paris to Brive takes 4 hours and 26 minutes (and costs, first class for two people, just €80). By comparison the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV – High-Speed Train) from Paris to Marseille takes just over 3 hours to cover 660 km (but is a lot more expensive). However, when I tried to book the same Paris-Brive trip for this April, I found I couldn’t. The line (ending in Toulouse) is one of two non-TGV tracks being renovated at a cost of €3,000 million. The other is from Paris to Clermont-Ferrand. So, it will be flights for us this spring.
None of this means that France won’t continue to expand its TGV network. Far from it. There are plans to build a TGV line between Bordeaux and Toulouse by 2032, as well as have ones between Montpelier and Perpignan, near the Spanish border, and between Marseille and Nice, near the Italian border. Thanks to the European Union’s insistence that the SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services be scrapped, Italy’s Trenitalia runs a high-speed service on the TGV line between Lyon and Paris. Meanwhile, a TGV line is being built between Lyon and Turin, in Italy.
My daughter moved with her family to Aix-en-Provence last year. I am sure that we will often in future be taking the TGV from Paris to Aix, the last stop before Marseille. But it's those slow Railcoop trains that I most look forward to taking. As the blessed François Philizot said in a recent interview in the Le Monde newspaper:
“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer.”
*Only Connect will continue to use the definite article when writing about the people of a country. Whatever a woke publisher’s ‘sensitivity reader’ might say, we don’t believe our readers would consider “the French” a racist term. Not least, the French [See Lynda Goetz's article on sensitivity readers in this month's Only Connect - Ed]
**In fact, ten of the thirty-one stations in the song are open now, some having been closed and then reopened.