France's grand high-speed train expansion slides off the rails

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The high-speed train, or TGV, is one of France’s major engineering success stories of the past three decades, revolutionizing transport in a country with largest surface area in Western Europe. Two years ago, a vast, ambitious plan was announced to extend the high-speed train network with 14 new lines in a north-south, east-west grid inter-linking most major French cities and regions. But now France’s new socialist government, battling a huge public deficit, has decided to pull the plug on a project it describes as “a headline-grabbing announcement” that was one of “a multitude of projects conceived without the beginning of the least financing”.  

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An ambitious and costly plan to extend France’s high-speed train network with 14 new lines is to be severely scaled down after the project, described by France's national audit office as economically unviable, became one of the first major targets of the new socialist government’s drive to rein in public spending.

Announced in 2010 by the conservative government of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, the project provided for a north-south, east-west grid inter-linking most major French cities and regions. While most of the proposed new lines were to be built over the next 25 years, a number of them are already under construction for completion by 2020, placing a heavy financial burden on the national French rail track owners and maintenance company, Réseau Ferré de France (RFF).

The high-speed train, or TGV, is one of France’s major engineering success stories of the past three decades and which has revolutionized rail transport, beginning with the Paris-Lyon line that opened in 1981. The country now counts more than 2,000 kilometres of TGV tracks serving lines between the capital and some 150 towns and cities in the south, north, west and east.

The new lines (see map below) provided for direct links between provincial regions, while also multiplying connections available from Paris. The plan was part of a ‘national transport infrastructure scheme’, or Schéma national des infrastructures de transports, (SNIT), an all-encompassing project to improve the efficiency and practicality of rail, road and waterway routes and public transport. The extension of the TGV lines was one of the pillars of the project, and the most expensive.

Les projets de lignes à grande vitesse Les projets de lignes à grande vitesse

Initially estimated to cost a total 245 billion euros over a period of 25 years, the SNIT was presented by former Prime Minister François Fillon’s government as “the development of alternative means of transport to that of road traffic, the improvement of access to the regions, a reduction in local pollution and the pursuit of an efficient use of energy”.

However, after its election in June, the socialist government, strapped for cash and under intense pressure to rein in public spending to reduce France’s public debt,  announced it would review the SNIT plans, which budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac has described as “a headline-grabbing announcement” that was one of “a multitude of projects conceived without the beginning of the least financing”.

President François Hollande’s pledge to reduce the public deficit to 3% of GDP next year will require finding an extra 35 billion euros either in extra revenue, or in paring back spending commitments – or both.

One of the government’s very first moves was to order a review of public accounts by the French national audit office, la Cour des comptes, which found that the true cost of the SNIT would reach 260 billion euros - 15 billion euros more than originally foreseen.  It also warned of significant financial strains with the building of some of the new lines, notably that planned between Lyon and the Italian city of Turin. Its harsh conclusions were that the cost of the new high-speed links was beyond the capacity of future available public financing.  

Speaking last month before a parliamentary commission into renewable energy sources, transport minister Frédéric Cuvillier announced that a reform of the project would be presented before the lower house, the National Assembly, in September.

Shortly afterwards, Cahuzac, interviewed on French television, said: "One can ask whether the prolongation of one or another high-speed line for a marginal gain in [travelling] time is preferable to the maintenance of the secondary rail transport network, one which is indispensable because it’s used by so  many.”

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