Railfuture members are not just strong supporters of rail-based transport systems but also frequent rail users both in Britain and abroad. As a result of what members have learned over the years – and the knowledge bank that has been built up - Railfuture is able to use strong arguments from knowledge of railway best practice both in Britain and around the world. Recently Railfuture has been undertaking comparisons of the rail systems in key cities with their equivalents in Britain under its “Go and Compare” banner, which is intended to be a consumer report showing what can be improved on Britain's railway.
Some Railfuture members choose to go on group trips with other rail campaigners. In late April 2016 a party of 18 enjoyed a visit to France by train from Britain, which was organised by Railfuture member Trevor Garrod and retired travel agent Peter Cannon. This trip was a leisure activity, independent of Railfuture's work, and not part of the Go and Compare project.
The destination of the week-long trip was Nice in the south of France. This is particularly relevant to Britain following the announcement early in 2016 that the Midland Metro extension beyond New Street station would not include any overhead wires and the CAF-built trams would operate using batteries, modelled on the award-winning design developed by CAF, which is based in Zaragoza in Spain. Although the example often given for catenary-free running is Seville in Spain, the CAF trams there use supercapacitors not batteries. The concept of catenary-free running in architecturally sensitive areas actually originated in Bordeaux, using a ground-level power supply. Nice was the first city to operate trams using batteries for catenary-free running.
Lille – Paris – Lyon - Nice
A swift journey from London to Lille on Eurostar was followed by a leisure lunch in this city whose economy has benefited from the construction of high speed lines to London, Brussels and Paris. Crossing Paris is not popular with British travellers to the south of France, however, and the group avoided this by catching a Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) via Charles de Gaulle Airport station all the way to Lyon, spending the night in one of the modern hotels next to Part Dieu station. High-speed trains reached Lyon in 1981, a new station was built and a new business quarter developed around it.
In Lyon the travellers sampled the varied public transport on a day ticket at €5.50 and the food in this city noted for its gastronomy. This was followed by a TGV south to Nice for the remainder of the week.
Nice is the fifth largest city in France, with the highest car ownership and on a rather cramped site between the hills of Provence and the blue Mediterranean. However, here, as in many other comparable French cities, central government has helped fund rail-based public transport projects. As a result, in 2007 a modern tramway opened from a park-and-ride site in the northern suburbs, via the main station and city centre, out to a hospital in the eastern suburbs. All of the party were able to ride on the frequent trams and so see work going on to build a second line that is due to open in stages in 2018/19. This new line will link the airport in the west to the harbour in the east and include a 2-mile city centre tunnel. It is expected to reduce by 20% the number of cars along the famous Promenade des Anglais. The six sources of funding include central and local government, the European Union and the airport operator (see www.tramway.nice.fr).
The ticket machines for the trams and trains were rather complicated to use but at the station there were also members of staff to offer advice.
It was warm enough to sunbathe on the beach. However, some Railfuture members chose instead to explore inland on the two railways that serve the mountainous hinterland of Nice.
One route, served by the "train des merveilles" ("train of wonders") took us to the pleasant little riverside town of Breil sur Roya (its station is nearly 1000 feet above sea level) or on via spectacular curves, tunnels and viaducts to Tende and through a long tunnel to Cuneo in Italy. In summer, passengers receive a commentary in French and English by a local guide on the train.
The other route is the metre-gauge Chemin de fer de Provence running nearly 100 miles to the town of Digne and providing a frequent commuter service into Nice by trains not unlike our Pacers, as well as a less frequent service in modern rolling stock up the valley of the River Var, threading lonely gorges then over viaducts and through tunnels to reach Digne. The only disadvantage is that the line has been cut back slightly in Nice, with a modern terminus in a back street while the site of the original terminus is being redeveloped.
Both lines have great tourist potential and on part of the metre gauge line seasonal steam trains are also operated. More information can be found at www.ter.paca and www.trainprovence.com.
Railfuture members had an opportunity to meet with Philippe Cretin, regional chairman FNAUT (www.fnaut.fr), which is the equivalent of Railfuture in France. He explained that all French regional councils are now responsible for local train services within their territories and that PACA (Provence - Alpes - Cote d'Azur) was one of the first to establish comites de ligne - similar to the Community Rail Partnerships in Britain - on such routes. However, the regions do not have power to levy taxes and so remain dependent on central government for such matters.
There was also challenges with cross-border services when, for example , PACA needed to work with its Italian counterparts on developing the Nice - Cuneo service.
It is now possible to travel on high-speed tracks all the way from London and Brussels to Marseille and FNAUT are supporting plans to extend the fast line along the Cote d'Azur, or Riviera. Already studies have been completed for the sections Marseille - Aubagne and Cannes - Nice. M Cretin described the service between Marseille and Toulon, both cities of over 500,000 population, as "castastrophic", while the heavily built-up area from St Raphael to the Italian border had a rail capacity problem.
FNAUT believed it was important that TGVs continued to serve city centre stations in Marseille, Toulon and Nice, however; and the concept of a cross-city tunnel in Marseille (whose main station is a terminus) was also being advocated in some quarters.
The Railfuture members found it useful to have through services from Lille to the South of France, bypassing Paris - not only for passengers from Great Britain but also those from Belgium and the Netherlands.
The conversation also covered the future of night trains in France and of other intercités (such as Bordeaux - Nice) - conventional long-distance trains which make a small loss. Competition between air and rail when the train journey is more than three hours was also discussed, as were the successful high-speed international trains between France and Switzerland and Germany respectively - and of course between France and England.
Finally some of the travellers caught a train along the coast operated by Thello (a new Franco-Italian joint venture between Transdev and Italian state owned railway company Trenitalia) from Nice to Genoa where they were given a very interesting tour by Marco Gariboldi of the Italian rail campaigning organisation AUTP.