Oops! French agency buys trains, finds stations aren’t big enough!

Societe Nationale des Chemins der fer Francais, or SNCF, is France’s government-controlled railway operator — the French Amtrak, sort of. It runs about 14,000 trains a day all over the country.

Reseau Ferre de France, or RFF, is a commercial creation of the French government. It owns the railroad system’s infrastructure, including hundreds of stations and about 20,000 miles of track.

You’d think SNCF and RFF would work together seamlessly. You’d imagine, for instance, that before SNCF ordered $2.7 billion worth of new rail cars (enough for 330-plus trains), RFF would have supplied the correct dimensions of all of its railroad depots so the new cars could be be built to fit in the stations.

Au contraire!

In a multimillion-euro blunder that France’s transport minister, Frederic Cuvillier, called “comically tragic,” RFF gave SNCF the standard platform dimensions only of stations built in the past three decades — apparently forgetting, or not realizing, that most of the country’s rail depots have been around for longer than 30 years. In the older stations, the space for trains to fit between platforms is a few centimeters narrower than in the newer ones.

Because it’s too late to shrink the trains, hundreds of platforms need to be trimmed.

“Costly repair works have already been carried to around 300 of the 1,300 platforms that need cutting back  to accommodate the new trains that will be rolled out from 2016,” one French media outlet reports. “Rail chiefs say [$68 million] of investment has been set aside to pay for the platform changes.”

According to London’s Guardian newspaper, an RFF spokesman told France Info radio: “It’s as if you have bought a Ferrari that you want to park in your garage, and you realise that your garage isn’t exactly the right size to fit a Ferrari because you didn’t have a Ferrari before. We discovered the problem a little late. … We are making our mea culpa.”

Where trains are concerned, small imperfections can make a difference. Just ask the builders of Metro’s Silver Line, which the transit agency hopes will open for passenger service this summer.

Not long ago, it was discovered that the two rails of the Silver Line were “a little too close together … in one specific location,” Metro General Manager Richard Sarles told reporters in a conference call Monday. He mentioned that “tight track gauge” issue in listing some of the problems that have slowed the much-delayed project.

“I mean, [test] trains were running out there,” Sarles said. “But over the long term, you’d be concerned about those really being a little too close to one another. We’re talking fractions of an inch. So [the builder] just had to take care of that, and that was taken care of.”

Paul Duggan covers the Metro system and transportation issues for The Washington Post.
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Ashley Halsey III · May 21, 2014

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