by Phil Marsh

This is a platform alteration - French style

Published: 25th May 2014

French Railways in expensive and embarrassing ‘Mind The Gap’ error

You generally never hear much criticism of French Railways in the UK but they make the same mistakes as the UK railways do. The very public platform measuring project travails being carried out in conjunction with the introduction of a fleet of new regional trains is likely to be somewhat expensive to rectify.

French Railways is split into several companies after European legislation dictated that the infrastructure side of the business should be separated from the train operations side, as with all EU member states 20 years ago.

The UK Government split British Rail into over 100 organisations and created a very expensive mayhem we are still paying for today. France retained SNCF and created RFF the French Railways infrastructure operator and train path allocator.

So when SNCF placed an order with Bombardier and Alstom for 2000 new carriages, they relied on measurements provided by the infrastructure operator to make sure the trains were compatible in size terms. Unfortunately, the wrong measurements were given to the train manufacturers and consequently the trains are now too large for the platforms.

Here is a platform alteration…

The error is said to cost the rail system around £50 million Euros to rectify. Around 1300 platforms will need to be cut back on the regional network with 15% of stations affected across the network. In some locations, the tracks are too close to allow the trains to pass on adjacent lines. This has been grandly described as ‘sub-optimal clearance’ by so-called experts!

The trains affected are Trains Express Regionaux (TERs) and will replace aging stock. In the UK over 20 years ago, our older slam-door trains were banned on crashworthy safety grounds after the Clapham crash and had to be replaced by 2002.

And guess what? Railtrack was sued for over £200 million by train manufacturers because there was a serious lack of gauging information available because of the way the UK railway was split up.

Who holds the vital statistics?

Railtrack was not given custody of gauging records and this delayed the new trains’ introduction by a few years.

The French regional train operator RFF provided SNCF with dimensions of stations built within the last 30 years which were built to different standards than those older. Safety standards have increased the safety margins by a few centimetres over the standards used half a century ago. This means that 341 trains out of the total order may not fit the network according to SNCF.

They said:

It has been reported that French minister of transport described the situation as absurd and a "comic drama" blaming the previous centre-right administration's decision to separate the rail network from the train network.

Christophe Piednoël, spokesman for RFF, 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."

SNCF and RFF said in a joint statement: "Putting this network of new generation and larger trains in order to satisfy public demand will require the modernisation of 1,300 platforms out of the 8,700 in the French rail network."

On the official SNCF website, Guillaume Pepy, Chairman of SNCF for over five years says that in 2008 he launched the restructuring of SNCF Group, with three aims: position SNCF to outperform its rivals; be an industrial champion, proud of the group’s success and know-how; be the leading public service company in everyday life in France, with plans for a European presence. “My priority is providing public transport services for everyday life, in Greater Paris in particular. While the Paris region accounts for 65% of all clients and 10% of our network, it has the least effective service!”

Plus ca change? Zut alors……….

But our London platform extension project is going well – or is it?

Meanwhile back in London, the plans to run five carriage trains on the Milton Keynes to Croydon via Kensington service from May 18 has been delayed because the Bombardier built trains are still being tested, and the platform extensions have not been completed.

As with French platforms, once its all up and running, all will be forgotten and passengers will hopefully enjoy a long-term rail service improvement.

Why do we need wider gaps between train and platform and between the tracks?

Modern trains have air suspension bags mounted on the bogies. These are normally in the inflated position which maintains the train in the correct position so far as vertical and lateral forces are concerned.

Very occasionally these air suspension bags become deflated which means a train can lean a few inches away from the normal position and so the gap needs to be a bit wider than 50 years ago.

The track is also deemed to move by about two inches a year to a worse position than planned and the extra gap also accommodates this – although the track rarely does this without being spotted by measuring trains.

Part of the train safety acceptance process is to measure the inflated and deflated ‘envelope’ that the train moves through.

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