Storytelling at the cost of accuracy

It is entirely possible that this story has passed you by, but the French train operating company SNCF has ordered a number of new trains. Reports will tell you that they’ve ordered 2000 new trains but that is not, strictly speaking correct; they have ordered a little over 400. The order is in the news not because every person in Europe is a trainspotter and madly excited by NEW TRAINS ZOMG, but because the trains are marginally too wide for a number of regional train stations in France, the sort of stations, in fact, that they will be serving.

So far, so funny, at least it’s not us, cue discussions online about dataquality. However, most of the people I see discussing this only speak English, none of them seem to have read any source material in French. So here’s the issue. While it is true, in fact, that some of the new trains are marginally too wide for some of the stations, the SNCF and their colleagues in the RFF who specified the requirements for the new trains, actually have known about this for a few years. The trains were specified to be used in stations which are in compliance with new-ish (in this internet world, anything older than 5 seconds probably isn’t very new any more) international standards. So in tandem with ordering trains, there is also a program of work, currently budgeted at 50 million and in planning since 2011 (that’s 3 years ago) to bring the stations up to international standards, a program of work which has to be done anyway.

If you were to read the stories as they appeared initially, they would seem to imply that the trains are arriving and now the French are discovering that they are too wide. Some of the French reports suggest that the trains are 20cm wider than their predecessors (the BBC helpfully reports them as too fat), but the truth is, it’s not that actually true that this has been sprung on the SNCF as a total complete shock, oh dear moment.

According to Les Echos, which is a French business paper, 1300 of the 8700 railway stations in France have platforms which do not accommodate the new trains (this is also mentioned in the RFF press release linked below). 300 of those 1300 stations have already been fixed and six hundred more will be done by the end of the year. The trains in question are gradually coming into service by the end of 2016 by the way. The work is currently being paid for by money from the RFF’s 4 billion euro infrastructure budget.

So the question is, why is this news now? And why is it staying news? The answer, as can often be the case, is politics. The RFF is reportedly – and they have not confirmed this – considering looking for funding support from the regions for the purposes of bringing the train stations up to international standards.

« Nous refusons de verser un seul centime sur cette réparation. On ne va pas, quand même, être à la fois pigeon et financeurs. Les régions ne sont pas des pigeons », a déclaré hier dans la cour de l’Elysée, Alain Rousset président de la région Aquitaine et de l’ARF avant un rendez-vous avec François Hollande.

So the regions don’t want to pay for the platform works.

The trains, however, are paid for by the regions and they’d like not to have to have the SNCF and the RFF involved either – they’d like full control over the TERs thank you very much.

However, the other issue which is keeping this in the news is the separation of the RFF and the SNCF 17 years ago.

The question of rail industry reform is on the table in France at the moment, so it is, if you want to change your relationship with the rail operating and the rail infrastructure companies, not a bad time to be discussing what can go wrong and looking for greater autonomy.

Le responsable  est à chercher du côté de « celles et ceux qui ont fait la commande, » a ajouté Alain Rousset. Ce navrant épisode procure enfin aux régions, qui financent les TER et voudraient acheter leur matériel roulant sans passer par la SNCF , une nouvelle occasion de revendiquer davantage d’indépendance vis-à-vis du tandem en charge des opérations ferroviaires. « C’est pour ça que nous on veut reprendre en main ces commandes. On paie 100% des TER, c’est à nous d’en assurer la commande, la propriété . Il faut que les régions s oient vraiment des autorités organisatrices, qu’elles aient la capacité de déterminer le tarif, les services, la maintenance», a poursuivi Alain Rousset.

(Both of Alain Rousset’s quotes are from the Les Echos piece linked above)

Basically, the regions, who finance the regional trains, want the SNCF out of the picture, they want independence in terms of the rail operations, they should be the organising authorities, should be able to set the fares, the service levels and the maintenance.

So what is the real story here? The French rail company ordered trains  which conformed to international platform standards, when 1300 of their railway stations did not actually conform to those standards. By the end of 2014, 900 of those stations will have been upgraded to cater for those trains. Those trains will progressively go into service by end of 2016 by which time you’d expect they could manage to have the remaining 400 stations sorted out.

The issues appear to be:

  • whether the budget set aside for this work is adequate and if not, should the regions perhaps contribute some money towards bringing the railway stations in their area up to international standard
  • whether communications between the SNCF and the RFF and the ARF (the umbrella group for the regions) are all that they could be
  • whether rail reform done 17 years ago was helpful or not
  • whether further rail reform is required.

The RFF suggests that they only started looking at this problem in 2011 although the trains were ordered in 2009 and that this maybe was a little late. I’m not sure, however, that that this is the biggest issue here – time wise, they are well on their way to having the stations sorted out; the French have done this kind of thing in the past to cater for the TGVs when they were brought in and, you would have thought, upgrading railway stations to modern standards, is the kind of thing that should be happening anyway.

I don’t see this as a data quality issue au fond. Ultimately the platforms have to be updated anyway. French bloggers writing on the subject see it as issues relating to communication issues between the ARF, the RFF and the SNCF which is probably part of it with added soupcon of rail industry reform past and present. More than anything, right now, we are talking about a story which isn’t quite true in all its ZOMG They Ordered Trains That Were TOO BIG glory, which is now being used as a political football.

It seems to be to somewhat unfair to approach things using what Terry Pratchett calls narritivium rather than actual reality.

For further information read:



Le Monde

RFF Press release

All those links are in French by the way