Trains in France: Not Too Long, Not Too Tall … Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

For Every Problem, There’s a €50 Million Solution

May 26, 2014By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Paris Update French TRAINS too-wide
Iillustration by Charles Giai-Gischia. Visit his blog, Traits-Drôles, for a larger version and more drawings.

As we all know, the French railroad network is a paragon of efficiency and technical sophistication, making it possible to travel to any sizable town quickly and at low cost. Which is why we were all surprised last week to learn that the French railroad network is a paragon of wastefulness and technical incompetence, making it impossible to travel to many sizable towns until huge amounts of time and money are spent.

What happened, as explained in this article in The Wall Street Journal dated May 21, was that RFF, the public company that operates France’s rail infrastructure, signed a deal for some 2,100 new trains and only later realized that they’re too wide to fit into 1,300 (15 percent) of its stations. This is the transportation equivalent of trying, as we say here in France, to put 10 kilos of Gruyère in a 5-kilo quiche mold.

But it’s too late now: 330 of the new trains have already been delivered and are sitting on RFF’s lawn in cardboard boxes covered with labels saying “This Side Up,” “Fragile — Do Not Squeeze,” “Best if used by June 30, 2014,” and, most importantly, “All Sales Final — No Refunds, No Returns.” So the company has signed another deal, this time with a construction contractor, or perhaps a Gruyère grater manufacturer, to shave a few centimeters off the platforms in the affected stations, at an additional cost of €50 million.

Since most of that money has to come out of public funds, this announcement was met with a nationwide chorus of embittered groans. And, of course, a veritable frenzy of finger-pointing. The unions blame the government, the government blames the previous government, and the previous government blames Dominique Strauss-Kahn (he had nothing to do with it, but he hadn’t been named in a scandal for almost three weeks, so they figured what the hell).

But, intriguingly, no one has yet blamed any RFF employees. Obviously, somebody somewhere botched up the measurements, but the news sources aren’t naming any names.

Thus, like Hercule Poirot on the Orient Express, I have decided to reveal the identity of the culprit. There is only one possible explanation: I must have a lost twin brother who works for RFF. I say this because I, too, am an exemplar of inefficiency and technical cluelessness.

I am not what anyone, without the help of hallucinogens, would call a handyman. Every time I attempt any kind of home improvement job that involves measuring, I seem to be transported into a Carrollesque alternate universe in which solid objects constantly change size and shape.

I can measure the height of a kitchen counter, for example, five times and come up with five different figures, none of them correct. I can’t even measure the length of a yardstick without getting it wrong.

And my ineptitude extends beyond measuring. My DIY projects are always characterized by an apparent compulsion to use the wrong tools and materials, combined with an incomplete or incorrect understanding of the problem.

This is true: I have six drains in my apartment, two in the kitchen and four in the bathroom. One day, one of the kitchen drains started backing up slightly, causing the dishwasher to overflow a bit. Rather than call a plumber for a few ounces of spilled dishwater, I decided to clear it myself. Ten minutes later, all six drains were totally clogged and the kitchen was flooded. I had to apply for disaster relief.

Therefore, I conclude that the person behind the RFF boondoggle is my Doppelgänger. I just hope that he’s not also in charge of the station renovation program. Because if he is, here’s what will happen:

Rather than spending a lot of money on an expensive contractor, he will go to the first station on his list and start cutting back the platform using a steak knife as a chisel and a bowling pin as a hammer.

After ruining several hundred knives and cutting himself twice, he will load all of the rubble into small, flimsy garbage bags and haul them out to the sidewalk in front of the station, breaking half of them along the way. After sweeping up and rebagging the spilled debris, he will realize that he has reduced the platform by ten centimeters too much, leaving a dangerous gap between its edge and the train.

He will then break open all the garbage bags, rummage through them, retrieve what he thinks look like the pieces that he shouldn’t have broken off and attempt to replace them using Super Glue.

After several hours, his hands and clothes will be covered with globs of glue. He will reach the end of the platform, turn around to check his work and see that the freshly replaced pieces are coming loose and falling onto the track. He will strike his head in consternation, leaving his right hand irreversibly stuck to his forehead.

Just then the RFF senior management board will come by to check his progress. Thinking that he’s saluting them, they will be impressed with his respectful attitude and decide to promote him, putting him in charge of all maintenance operations for the entire country.

Over the next 10 years, car and motorcycle sales will soar nationwide as the rail system becomes unviable due to his bungling. The increase in road traffic will make the development of eco-friendly fuel cell vehicles urgent. France will lead the world in this new high-growth technology, thus reviving the economy, cutting unemployment to an all-time low and consolidating the euro.

Meanwhile, the 1,300 too-narrow train stations will be abandoned. Weeds, moss and mold will grow on the platforms, weakening them until they crumble at the edges. The original problem will at last be solved.

Increased tax revenue from the fuel-cell boom will fund the renovation of the rail network, which, fortunately, will be overseen by someone else. By then, the 2,100 trains purchased in 2014 will look quaint. This will make them a very popular means of transport, as people ride them purely for nostalgic pleasure.

My twin will receive the Nobel Economics and Peace Prizes for initiating the chain of events that saved both the eurozone and the Earth. And maybe then he’ll be able to get me a job with RFF. I could be in charge of purchasing.


© 2014 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.

Follow C’est Ironique on Facebook and Twitter.

What do you think? Send a comment:

Your comment is subject to editing. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe for free!

The Paris Update newsletter will arrive in your inbox every Wednesday, full of the latest Paris news, reviews and insider tips.