French Trains Are Too Wide For Stations

Robert Siegel talks to columnist Hervé Martin of the French newspaper Le Canard Enchaine about the story it broke about new French trains that are too wide for many French train stations.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Trains are big in France. They're often very fast, often French-made, and they are widely used. At the moment, they are scandalously wide and big.

Nearly 2,000 new trains ordered by the national railroad, SNCF, are too wide for many French railroad stations. So to accommodate the new trains, hundreds of platforms at railroad stations will have to reconfigured.

To hear how this happened and what people are saying about it over there, we are joined by Herve Martin, who is economics editor for the paper, Le Canard Enchaine, which broke this story. Thank you for joining us.

HERVE MARTIN: Yes. Good evening.

SIEGEL: And let's begin with the big question. How could the SNCF, a national railroad that's been operating since 1938, do something so dumb as buy trains that don't fit in so many of its stations?

MARTIN: Well, there was an error somewhere. There are two companies, one is in charge with tracks and the other one is in charge with the car and the locomotive. And the first one said to the second, I need cars with that kind of dimension. And the second company didn't understand very well what it was about. That's a real error.

SIEGEL: I gather that some years ago the platforms used to be wider than they've been more recently?

MARTIN: Yes. In fact, years ago, the cars were smaller and there was a difference between platform on cars of about 20 centimeters.

SIEGEL: A difference of 20 centimeters is a difference of eight inches.

MARTIN: Exactly. And that fits in about 75 percent of the platforms. But for the other platforms it doesn't fit anymore and that's a problem.

SIEGEL: How many platforms will have to be rebuilt in order to fit these new wider trains?

MARTIN: Well, I think it's about 1,000.

SIEGEL: About 1,000.

MARTIN: Yes. But, you know, there are a lot of stations in France because train is a very, as the country of United States, trains are a very popular mode of transportation in France.

SIEGEL: Now when we say a train, what are we talking about? What constitutes a single train?

MARTIN: One locomotive and two cars. You cannot divide them.

SIEGEL: One locomotive and two cars.

MARTIN: Exactly.

SIEGEL: And nearly 2,000 such units are too big for hundreds of French train stations.

MARTIN: Exactly. Exactly.

SIEGEL: Has somebody accepted responsibility for getting this wrong?

MARTIN: Well, it's not quite clear. Now they are arguing, you know, but...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, I don't know. It's not clear. There is an inquiry and it will be complete next Monday.

SIEGEL: Well, Herve Martin of Le Canard Enchaine, the French satirical and investigative paper, thanks very much for talking with us about it.

MARTIN: Thank you very much. Bye-bye.

SIEGEL: And wherever the blame for the mistake eventually falls, Herve Martin says the estimated costs for shaving down all of those platforms will be about $65 million.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You can follow us on Twitter. I'm Audie Cornish @npraudie.

SIEGEL: I'm Robert Siegel @rsiegel47. You can follow our co-host @nprmelissblock.

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