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Friday, 8 October, 1999, 14:17 GMT 15:17 UK
French trains: Safer but costly
Nice overnight train outside Paris
Safety can never be guaranteed: A crash outside Paris
By Nick Wood in Paris

In France, rail experts, the state owned railway, and the press are all asking the same question: Could a disaster on the scale of Paddington ever take place here?

The answer is a resounding no.

Fourteen years ago, France suffered a series of rail crashes that prompted it to take drastic measures. As a result it now has one of the safest railway networks in Europe.

London Train Crash
In 1985, 84 people lost their lives in three separate accidents. In all three, drivers had driven through red signals.

The reaction of the government was prompt. Within a year, a new automatic signalling system was being tested.

Speed control

Called KVB, or "speed control by beacon", it brings a train to a dead halt if it passes a red signal, or if it thought to be travelling too fast.

In the UK, systems exist to warn drivers they have passed a red light. But it is possible - as the Clapham, and Southall disasters have shown - for the trains to ignore these warnings and carry on their journey.

With KVB, a series of beacons laid between the tracks relay messages to an onboard computer. An alarm sounds in the driver's cabin prompting them to slow the train down.

If they fail to do so, the train is brought automatically to a halt.

The impact of the system on drivers has been very noticeable.

Passing red signals

Strike in May 1998
A strike by French railroad staff in May 1998 shows British and French commuters do experience common problems
"On the SNCF, it is a matter of culture. To pass a red signal is really the worst mistake you can make in your career," says Jean Paul Masse, a former train driver and now writer for the French rail magazine La Vie de Rail.

By contrast in Britain, some 643 trains passed red signals last year.

KVB covers three-quarters of the French rail network at the cost so far of 500m. The programme is expected to be complete by 2005.

Britain hopes to have introduced its own Train Protection and Warning System by then.

At just 150m, it is very much KVB's poorer cousin. It does not control overall speed and cannot when a train is travelling faster than 70mph.

Since the introduction of the new system, signal-related accidents have fallen drastically.

Only one fatal crash has occurred this decade, in an area where the new warning programme had yet to be introduced.

Not surprised

While shocked, rail experts in France have not that been taken back by Paddington.

"When I heard about Paddington I was not surprised," says Jean Paul Masse.

"The way railways work in Britain is completely different in France, where the state is far more ready to invest."

But it has cost a lot to make the SNCF one of the most advanced railways in the world.

It has seen debts of 200bn francs (20bn) and an annual deficit of 15bn francs (1.5bn).

Japan and Germany's equally impressive rail networks have even greater financial problems.

Trade-off

"You have a choice", according to Mr Masse.

"You can chose a railway with a high debt, but a very good railway - safe and very modern. The other choice is to have an unsafe railway, but with no debt behind it."

State investment has not eliminated all of France's safety problems though.

Two years ago, 13 people were killed when a lorry ran in front of an oncoming passenger train in the Dordogne.

It should also be noted that some 40% of French trains are still pulled by diesel engines. It was the explosion of diesel fuel that added to such a high death toll at Paddington.

Links to more Europe stories are at the foot of the page.


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