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New train cars in France too wide for hundreds of stations

A Regional Express Train, or TER, is sationed along a platform at the Saint Lazare station in Paris, Wednesday May 21, 2014. Engineers at the French railway network forgot to measure the actual distance between lines and platforms, before ordering 341 new trains, which were to be introduced between now and 2016. It will cost 50 million euros to fix the problem. Nearly 1,300 stations are just a few centimetres too narrow. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

Remy de la Mauviniere/AP

Embarrassed French rail officials were trying Wednesday to explain why they ordered new train cars from a consortium that includes Canadian manufacturer Bombardier that are too large to fit through hundreds of regional stations.

The problem was revealed by Le Canard enchaîné, a satirical newspaper that often publishes investigative exposés. The paper said a communications breakdown between two state companies resulted in ordering cars that will be a few centimetres too wide.

The blunder had French cabinet ministers venting at the rail managers.

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Energy and Ecology Minister Ségolène Royal described it as an "unbelievable mistake" while Junior Transport Minister Frédéric Cuvillier said it was "ubuesque" (nonsensical), an allusion to absurdist theatre.

In a statement on its website, Réseau Ferré de France, which is responsible for the country's network of rail tracks, said 1,300 station platforms would have to be shaved off, an overhaul that would cost about $75-million.

The problem isn't the cars but the infrastructure in some century-old stations, the state company said.

"The trains fit international standards. It is a matter of adapting our platforms to those same international standards."

The cars were ordered from a consortium comprising Bombardier Transportation and the French company Alstom Transport and are part of the electrically-powered TER 2N NG system for regional express service.

"This is appalling, how decisions so out of sync with reality can be taken. People need to get out of their offices and come to the train stations and get a grasp of the situation before taking decisions that cost so much," Ms. Royal told reporters after a cabinet meeting.

Mr. Cuvillier blamed the gaffe on the 17-year-old reform which split responsibility for the railway system between two state companies.

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The carrier SNCF continues to operate the rolling stock but Réseau Ferré de France was created to manage the railway infrastructure.

"This sad situation would be funny if it wasn't an illustration that the railway system is absurd, nonsensical," Mr. Cuvillier told BFMTV.

Speaking on Europe 1 radio, the president of Réseau Ferré de France, Jacques Rapoport, said train cars need to be bigger to accommodate increased traffic and the need to be accessible to commuters with mobility problems.

"Each time we introduce new rolling stock, we have to adapt the infrastructure. This is normal work," he said.

He admitted however that the platform issue was not immediately apparent to planners.

"We discovered the issue a bit late."

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About the Author
National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More

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