Last week, Connex became the first private rail operator to be stripped of its franchise after being accused of financial mismanagement and poor service. The company, which carries 300,000 commuters a day, has become a byword for crowded, dirty and late-running trains.
What caught my eye was the fact that Connex is a French-owned company and the main reason for its demise is its contant pleas for funds. Connex has lost its franchise mainly because of its financial management. The SRA (Strategic Rail Authority) decided the extra £200 million of public subsidy demanded by the company would not be wisely spent (after it has already spent £58 million of public money received last December).
In the last couple of weeks we have had some interesting exchanges among commenters attacking and defending France. The trains were held as an example of French superiority in matters of public policy and generally as the evidence of higher civilisation in France. Ross Clark points out in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph:
If there is one good thing to come out of Connex’s humiliation, it will be that it should stop British railway passengers whining: “Why can’t we run our trains like the French do?” Connex, of course, is a French company, which brought with it to Britain experience of running commuter services in Paris.
The superiority of French trains is hugely overstated. TGV trains may be rapid and relatively inexpensive to use, but that is an inter-city service with few stops and it operates thanks only to state subsidies which would make a British taxpayer squeal. Most other French trains run on slack and infrequent timetables which ensure punctuality but at the cost of providing little amenity for the passenger. On holiday in Brittany two years ago I took my family on a 15-mile train ride from Paimpol to Guincamp. The journey took well over half an hour, excluding the 10 minutes that it took to buy a ticket. It cost £17 for two adults and two children; and there were only three trains a day.
The problem with travelling by train in London and the South-East is the millions of passengers being transported over an increasingly large urban area. The rail network is far from efficient but comparing it to the French equivalent is misleading at best. I am sure the guys from the Transport blog could supply all the relevant comparative statistics but even without them one can see that conveying commuters in London is, at least when it comes to size, a slightly different proposition to doing that in Paris, Rome or other European capitals.