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29 November 2022

Why we need a train network like France’s

While Birmingham and Leeds wait for metros, Emmanuel Macron is rolling out Paris-style trains in cities across France.

By Ido Vock

“I want us to have a grand national ambition of developing a network of RER trains in ten of the largest French cities.”

The French president Emmanuel Macron’s announcement on 27 November that he wants to develop equivalents to Paris’s Réseau express régional (RER) suburban train networks in other cities has caused surprise in France. The RER network comprises five rail lines that run through the capital, connecting the centre with surrounding suburbs – a model that Macron wants to emulate elsewhere.

The announcement – apparently not coordinated with regional leaders or rail bosses – was received generally positively, although critics were quick to note that Macron’s government has a mixed record on rail investment. Earlier this month, the executive refused an opposition amendment for an additional €3bn (£2.6bn) of investment in rail infrastructure. François Durovray, the leader of the Essonne region in the north of the country, claims that building ten RER networks will cost €30bn (£26bn) over the next five years, double the amount currently earmarked.

With his announcement, Macron is clearly tapping into nostalgia and pride for the champions nationaux supported by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the French president between 1974 and 1981, in many ways the predecessor who Macron most closely resembles politically. It was under Giscard d’Estaing that megaprojects such as the TGV network of high-speed trains were initiated, leaving an imprint on the country that still means it has one of the best rail networks in Europe. 

These projects, if they ever go ahead, will take a decade at least to build. To be realised, they will require huge investment and sustained political backing over several different presidential terms.

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But projects requiring huge investment and sustained political backing are something France does well, maybe better than any other big democracy. The lineage of such a political culture can be traced back to Charles de Gaulle’s dirigisme – perhaps even further, to the centralised monarchism that gave Baron Haussmann the authority to demolish swathes of Paris to turn it into the elegant, ordered city it is today.

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Viewed from the UK, a uniquely hostile place to building infrastructure of any type, the scale of France’s ambition awes. Suburban train lines are not the most inspiring transport projects. They do not have the space-age glamour of high-speed trains connecting city centres or the engineering prowess of world firsts like the the Channel Tunnel. They are, however, one of the most effective ways to boost the economic prospects of a region, while diminishing the need for polluting and congesting car rides in cities.

Boris Johnson, who was raised in Brussels (a city linked by TGV to Paris), was fond of French-inspired champions nationaux rhetoric: you only need recall his plans for a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland, or, before that, the half-baked “Boris Island” dream of an airport in the Thames Estuary. But as prime minister, his government cancelled and delayed rather than built. It cancelled the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds, the high-speed link between that city and Manchester, and even a modest four station extension of London’s Bakerloo Line. He has form: as mayor of London, he cancelled plans for a cross-river tram connecting the north and south of the city. (Johnson had little direct influence on Crossrail, which was approved by the national government in 2008.)

The UK desperately needs investment in public transport on the scale Macron is proposing. It is already far behind its peers. There are more than a dozen cities in France smaller than Leeds with a tram system (Leeds is the largest city in western Europe without a mass transit system). The Glasgow subway serves not one more station than it did when it was opened in 1896. Rennes, a city of 220,000, has two metro lines; Birmingham, a city five times the size, has none.

The Grand Paris Express, a set of four new metro lines and no less than 68 new stations in the Paris area, is one of Europe’s biggest engineering projects and will transform the geography of the region when completed. Needless to say, the UK has nothing comparable planned or under construction. 

If Macron has his way, even midsized French cities will have even more of an advantage over their peers across the Channel. Although maybe by then work on the Bakerloo Line extension will finally have started.

[See also: The underlying tension of Emmanuel Macron’s US state visit]

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