No train strain for French

April 21, 1995

France's high-speed train, the TGV, flashes daily across the country at up to 200mph (320kph) and has been sold to Spain for its AVE line. Britain's counterpart, the APT, sits in sidings at the national Railway Museum in York awaiting restoration.

Even before President Mitterrand drily noted the pleasures of the English countryside as Eurostar plodded through Kent after its lightning journey from Paris to the channel, France was getting better results from cutting-edge change in its railways.

Roxanne Powell, researcher in the department of government at the London School of Economics, told the PSA conference that the differences in performance were culturally based.

Her paper, based on a comparison of the TGV and APT projects - both initiated in the 1960s - pointed to dramatic differences in priorities.

"France's philosophy of policy making is object driven. What matters is getting things right and the means do not matter too much. If the policy-makers want a result, cost is a secondary consideration. Britain is preoccupied with means and processes. Financial considerations are very dominant," she said.

This has consequences for both projects. "In Britain the project had to conform to expectations of high financial returns for a minimal amount of investment, and political interventions were able to launch the project in 1968, only to foil it in the early 1980s. In France a united front of railway managers, engineers and transport officials was able to convince officials from the finance ministry, together with politicians, that the TGV project, although relatively expensive was sound in wider economic terms."

Ms Powell notes one implication of her case study dating back long before the Conservative Party regained power in 1979. "Thatcherism may have been a very extreme expression of this philosophy, but it was not new. The underlining outlook was there long before."

A further important cultural difference is the status of engineers. The TGV was initiated and carried through by French engineers - a group drawing on the professional standing conferred by grande ecole training and a curriculum mixing technical skills with a training in broader issues of finance, law and economics. It was the logical next step from French railways' existing technology.

The APT was the brainchild of Ministry of Transport scientists.

"Britain gives science a much higher status and produces more scientists through its universities than other European countries. But the APT was a leap too far ahead of what existed already."

British railway engineers were sceptical of the project from the start but lacked the political and professional status to influence the policy agenda. Once political support declined and short-term development costs rose, the project was axed.

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