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Upton-on-line - Something To Celebrate

Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition


28th June 2001

In this edition

…which is mercifully short, upton-on-line reflects on France’s glossiest new toy, the recently inaugurated TGV service to Marseilles, some broader mobility issues and fresh torments for Premier Lionel Jospin.


Something to celebrate

France is a country obsessed with how it compares with America. The comparisons are normally a mixture of envy, disdain and rationalisation as to why the country the French love to hate manages to be bigger, better, slicker and schmoozier. (The comparison with New Zealand attitudes towards Australia is not altogether missing: Aucklanders justifying why they don’t live in Sydney, analysts explaining why New Zealand businesses don’t measure up to their trans-Tasman equals, policy wonks explaining why, despite superior policies, Oz economic performance outstrips ours…)

But in one respect the French have no doubts about their superiority – le Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV). The TGV (the abbreviation has become a noun in its own right as attested to in dictionaries) is a symbol of French technical prowess. It goes very fast indeed (routinely at over 300 km/h, record speed over 500 km/h) and is loaded with the sort of electronic gidgitry that is normally associated with aircraft. If you’re interested in the vital details, visit www.sncf.fr where you will pick up the gee-whiz flavour that (justifiably) surrounds the TGV.

It also looks good. While the aesthetics of French car design are, to put it kindly, eccentric, the people who designed the trains must have gone to a different polytechnic. The TGV is incredibly stylish and futuristic. It also gives a silky ride in real comfort. There’s only one weak point – the food. Somehow, railway catering the world around seems blighted by the conception that it must be fairly indigestible – probably to keep the queues in the bar down. The TGV food isn’t much different – but at least the journeys are quick enough to avoid the need to buy anything.

Opening up le Midi

The TGV has been around for a while. But up until now it has been limited to only bits of the network that radiate (as does everything else in France) out from Paris. Upgrading the lines and signalling to accommodate the high speeds is a massively expensive business and many TGV trips suddenly slow down when the quality of the lines reverts to mid-twentieth century. Going to Geneva, for instance, means covering two thirds of the distance in about and hour and a half and then grinding slowly through the Jura mountains for the same length of time to complete the journey. The same thing happens on the way to London. The Eurostar rushes to Dover then crawls through the Kent countryside at a snail’s pace to match the neat town-and-country-planned-to paralysis Kentish countryside.

The big deal this June has been the opening of high speed lines to Marseilles. For the first time, high speed trains in France are starting to look like a network that link a fair percentage of the big cities including the three biggest – Paris, Lyons and Marseilles. The Mediterranean is now just three and a half hours from Paris. And in terms of time that’s genuinely competitive with air travel.

While the actual time in the air is much shorter, that’s not the appropriate comparison. Because as everyone knows, getting to and from airports is a nightmare and Paris is as bad as anywhere. Allow up to an hour’s travel from central Paris to the airport, then time spent messing around checking in and more time at the other end not to mention delays on the ground or in the air as traffic controllers take over from published timetables. Even where the times aren’t too different, there’s more uninterrupted time from the centre of one city to another which means people can work (or sleep) undisturbed.

But is it financially competitive?

Who knows? The French, like everyone else in the world, have played ducks and drakes with the financing of their transport infrastructure. While SNCF which runs the trains can make the TGV apparently break even, the huge capital costs of its development have been funded by taxpayers over the years. And the enormous capital costs of expanding the network are on the books of a different state-owned entity that in theory owns the lines.

Upton-on-line has not had the fortitude to explore the none-too-transparent explanations offered in the French media (requiring as it would, a new raft of specialised vocabulary that he is not anxious to acquire). But it would surprise no-one to learn that when it comes to leading edge projects like this one owned by a government that can sheet losses home to taxpayers, there’s unlikely to be anything very robust about its profitability.


But then what is?

It would be easy to dismiss the TGV as being a bit like the Russian or American space programmes – exotic hi-tech marvels that can only make it into this world on the back of long-suffering taxpayers. That’s true but it’s part of a more complex truth that afflicts mobility systems worldwide. It’s impossible to escape subsidies and distortions that, for social and political reasons, have shaped the technologies currently available.

Some reasons are just egregiously interventionist – like the Europeans subsidising Airbus so that they could compete globally with Boeing. (But then, how much did Boeing owe to research and development ultimately funded by America’s defence budgets?)

Other reasons for subsidised or distorted mobility systems have social welfare justifications: that if everyone had to pay the full cost of transport systems, large numbers of low-income earners would be excluded. Most countries in the world run their roading systems on this basis. And up until now, the difficulty of charging for access to roads has kept them this way. But new electronic means of charging very precisely have put the option on the table (remember the fuss about road charging in NZ)?

On this front the French are remarkably commercial. Most of the motorway network is covered by tolls (quite stiff ones) that mean there’s more of a level playing field between road and rail. Perhaps it’s no surprise that rail looks more viable vis à vis road than it appears to in the US where passenger traffic is insignificant (less than one percent of inter-city trips).

A bottomless swamp?

Looking at the quagmire of justifications that have been advanced for subsidising, managing and owning different elements of transportation systems in different ways, it is tempting to think that anything approaching a rational system is unachievable. Upton-on-line’s attention was drawn recently to a World Bank review of urban transport systems in which the point was made (which applies to transport in general) that all of them seem to be characterised by the following:

 Unco-ordinated decision-making by transport operators and infra-structure providers as a result of regulatory/ownership barriers;
 Different transport modes (road, rail etc) that interact with one another and impact on one another being separated (again by regulatory/ownership barriers);
 The prices people pay to use transport bearing little relationship to the price of providing the infrastructure.

As the World Bank concluded, the combined effect of these structural and pricing problems results in excess demand alongside inadequate finance to provide infrastructure. If that sounds like the Hamilton-Auckland motorway that remains a series of lines on planners’ maps, it is. (It also sounds a bit like public health systems…)

Will it ever get sorted?

Judging by the intense politics that surrounds every aspect of transport systems (from planning objections to noise, air pollution and destruction of amenity through to fuel taxes and licensing fees) it would be a fair bet to predict that this will be the last bastion to succumb to liberal economic theory.

And even if it did, there’s no knowing how the various transport modes would unwind in relation to one another because there are a raft of environmental externalities waiting in the wings that are unlikely to be left in the too-hard-basket forever. Seeking to limit them (through regulations or taxes) is likely to set off another round of inter-modal adjustments. Tackling greenhouse gas emissions is likely to cause the biggest waves.

Transportation accounts for 28% of worldwide CO2 emissions and that share is growing. (In many countries, including New Zealand, it is the fastest growing source of emissions). Transportation systems are overwhelmingly based on fossil fuels. 96% of all energy used in transport is derived from petroleum. And consumption is expected to double over the next 30 years. Despite significant improvements in efficiency in all modes, the sheer increase in volume of goods and people moved swamps the gains – hence emissions rise inexorably.

Where does the TGV stack up in all of this

One of the attractions of the TGV (entirely unforeseen at the time of its development) is that it’s a good deal friendlier on the emissions front than its principal competitor, air travel. Air travel today is the fastest growing sector of the transport industry. It currently account for around 10% of all transport emissions of CO2. But that understates the impact of aviation on global warming because burning fossil fuels 10 kms up has a far larger impact than burning them on the ground. (That’s principally because of the contribution aircraft emissions make to cloud formation).

So if anyone ever got serious about taxing fuels on the basis of their global warming potential, aviation would be particularly hard hit. France’s TGV, on the other hand, doesn’t emit anything directly since it’s electric. More interestingly still from a climate change point of view, neither do most of the power stations that generate the electricity since in addition to hydro power France generates a majority of its electricity from – you guessed – nuclear sources.

So it’s out of the frying pan and into the radioactive waste dump (so to speak) if you’re looking to absolve any environmental scruples about a jaunt to the Riviera. It’s a rather delicious twist to the hopelessly tangled public policy muddle that applies to transport here and everywhere.

Meanwhile, the French go on their way without too many scruples. Passenger congestion at the Gare de Lyon (with its potted palm trees hinting at the allure of the south) feels about as claustrophobic as the périphérique orbital motorway does coming back into Paris on a Sunday afternoon. Not that the French are scared of dealing to that problem either – they’ve just started on the construction of double-decker underground motorways to get under the bottlenecks there! But no-one here has quite developed a nuclear-powered Citroen yet. So there will still be an authentically French contribution to global warming for some time to come. Which must be a point of honour for a country that can’t stand being out-done by les américains.

Les piétons strike back

Just in case you thought the French love affair with motorised transport was total, upton-on-line can report that city hall in Paris is in league with counter-revolutionary forces. Every Sunday, between 9.00 and 17.00, the river-side quais are closed to traffic and made available to the roller-blading guerillas and mountain-bike militias that, during the week, conduct hit-and-run attacks through the grid-locked traffic and tourist-ridden summer pavements. Even more startling, the police don roller blades and, aided by patrol cars with lights flashing, lead thousand (literally thousands) of roller-bladers and cyclists through the streets of Paris while late Sunday traffic is forced to sit and swelter while the horde passes by.

In a city of such surpassing beauty, it has the quality of a spirited counter-attack against the vehicles that have invaded and degraded so much public space. Small wonder that upton-on-line has joined the barricades and donned roller-blades himself. The pavement asphalt in Paris is divine but the cobbles a little less so…


Fresh encounters with the truth

Just when the left was feeling particularly smug about a 2002 presidential election contest between a constitutionally immune but judicially pursued Jacques Chirac and its own Mr Clean, Lionel Jospin, Le Monde has gone and spoilt it all by checking again whether all those rumours about the Prime Minister being a former ‘Trot’ were true. They were!

M. Jospin has, apparently, been bugged by rumours for some years that he was a Trotskyist. These he has until recently denied, claiming that people were confusing him with his brother. Cornered by definitive proof, M Jospin lamely countered by saying that he thought it was nobody else’s business. And in some respects you could argue that in the cloud cuckoo land of French leftist politics this would be a badge of honour. That’s exactly what the communist press countered with: yawn, so what, why didn’t he admit it earlier.

Well the reason might have something to with the fact that this wasn’t an innocent sort of first year pol-sci reverie of the sort that Jane Kelsey’s annual catch sink into. He was, apparently, associated with “entry-ism”, the charming technique whereby true believers were sent off to infiltrate the more mainstream Socialist Party taking only a cut lunch, a few inspirational pamphlets and the phone number of someone in the mother party they could ring once a month for counselling and ideological confession.

The extent of this heinous subterfuge is not entirely clear to upton-on-line whose command of French does not extend to the various papers of the extreme left that still exist in this citadel of thwarted political romanticism. But as they say, where there’s smoke there’s fire and M Chirac knows a towering political inferno when he sees one. He and M Jospin played out their co-habitation with exquisite good manners at the recent EU summit in Gothenburg, but back at home the gloves are off. M Jospin went so far as to volunteer that he thought being tardy with the truth about his political past was to be preferred to being tardy appearing before examining judges!

All of which indicates a good old knock-down-drag-out presidential campaign. But on one point, upton-on-line must make an unreserved apology and correction. Early last year he breezily opined that Helen Clark’s government was easily the most left wing to be elected in the western world since the first Mitterand administration back in 1981. That was clearly wrong. As Jospin moves now to win admiration for being unmasked as a real lefty from way back in the face of an increasingly fractious governing coalition, there can be no doubt that France remains the home of true millennial radicals. New Zealand’s governing team is a hot bed of conservative prudence in comparison!


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