For railways March is always the cruellest month.
In March 1963 Dr Richard Beeching published his infamous report calling for the closure of 8,000 kilometres of railway lines and 2,300 stations in Britain.
In March 2019, François Philizot – Le Docteur Beeching Français? – will publish a study on the fate of over 9,000 kilometres of little-used railway lines in France.
They include a spectacular 277 kilometres line through the Massif Central from Béziers to Cantal which operates a single passenger train in each direction a day, plus an occasional freight. One of its many stations, Les Cabrils, attracts 14 passengers a year.
In the midst of a tenacious Gilets Jaunes rebellion, the government insists that it will resist any temptation to axe loss-making, rural railway lines.
Last year, well before Peripheral France revolted, it rammed through other reforms of the state-owned railways, the SNCF. It rejected proposals to save €1 billion a year by shutting 20 per cent of the country’s rail network.
The problem is that shunting the problem into a siding is no longer an option. Many small lines have been starved of investment for decades. The resources of SNCF Réseau, the arm of the state railways which owns track and stations, have been concentrated on France’s splendid new high-speed lines since 1981.
It emerged recently that some rural lines in the south-west have not been fully maintained for 50 years. Some track has not been re-laid since the 1930s.
Three quarters of the cost of local lines already falls on regional governments which are running short of funds. The government cannot afford to bail them out. The transport ministry calculates that it is cheaper to hire fleets of taxis than to operate lines with less than 200 travellers a day.
Something like half – over 4,500 kilometres – of France’s “lignes de desserte fine” (lines of local access) are now operating at low speeds because the track is unreliable. Several dozen of them have been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.
Gilles Savary, a former Socialist deputy, and expert on railways, says: “The railway is a territorial icon in France. Where there is the railway, there is the Republic. Shutting the local station is like shutting the local school.”
Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station closely observing trains.
I have long been jealous, on Britain’s behalf, of the fine new network of Trains à Grande Vitesse (TGVs) created in France in the last 40 years.
The problem is that the TGV revolution came at the cost of neglecting both suburban rail networks and rural lines. Some routes have been closed but there has never been a strategic plan for France’s “lower speed” railways. French governments have asked, but none has had the courage to answer, the questions posed by Dr Richard Beeching in 1963.
Is a local railway network built in the 19th century suitable for the 20th century – or now the 21st? What is the purpose of single-track branch-lines operating four trains a day when almost everyone has a car and buses are cheaper and often kinder to the environment?
The Beeching Plan in Britain closed some railways that should have been kept alive. A few of them, like the line through the Scottish Borders and the line from Oxford to Cambridge, are being re-opened half a century later.
These are the exceptions. The great majority of the lines cut by Beeching had long outlived their original purpose.
François Philizot, the senior government official who reports on the future of rural railways this month, is said to be examining all options short of closure. They include converting branch lines to narrow roads dedicated to buses; or to rebuilding lines as driverless tramways operated by computer; or severing them from the rest of the network to save costs on signalling.
M. Philizot should also ponder what happened to many of the Beechingised lines in the UK, which have since been rebuilt by volunteers as heritage steam railways.
Many of France’s underused and neglected railways pass through spectacular countryside. With a little public or private investment, they could become tourist railways which bring income to their regions rather than swallow tax-payers’ euros.
The Gilet Jaunes rebellion has made Paris unusually sensitive to the problems of La France Profonde. It’s possible that any recommendations for investment from Mr Philizot will be taken seriously.
(Regional train map for central France. How many of these lines will be around in 10 years time? Photo: TER/Wikicommons)
(Regional train map for Midi-Pyrenees. How many of these lines will be around in 10 years time? Photo: TER/Wikicommons)
More likely, the government and the SNCF will continue with their present policy of Beeching-by-stealth. Thirty small lines have been “suspended” in the last decade. Without new spending, railway unions say, many more lines will have to be closed for safety reasons.
“In the next two or three years, 40 per cent of small lines are at risk if government doesn’t put its hand in its pocket for repairs,” says Bruno Poncet of the militant union Sud Rail.
In truth, the government’s pockets are empty, and likely to be emptier after its past and future concessions to the Gilets Jaunes.
There is little light at the end of the 38 tunnels on the 277 kilometres from Béziers on the Mediterranean coast to Neussargues in the Cantal.
You can follow John Lichfield on Twitter at @John_Lichfield