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Rail fail: French company orders $20bn worth of trains too wide for platforms

Rail fail: French company orders $20bn worth of trains too wide for platforms
A massive blunder has led to the French national rail operator facing public humiliation and $100 million in losses, so far, after it mistakenly ordered $20 billion worth of new trains that were too wide for some platforms.

The 2,000 trains ordered by the train company SNCF of course cost much more than attempting to repair the platforms in a way that would fit the new trains; this is where the 80 million euro ($110 million) is now going towards, weekly satirical Le Canard Enchaine reported on Wednesday, followed by the rest of the French media.

The crux of the problem is simple: the company in charge of providing the specifications prior to the order (RFF – the network, owner of SNCF – the rail company) had given the SNCF dimensions only for platforms built less than 30 years ago. Most of the country’s platforms were built more than 50 years ago, with different dimensions. Now more than 1,000 of the 8,700 platforms will need to be refitted.

Construction work is now underway to widen the hundreds of platforms to accommodate new trains, according to Christophe Piednoel of RFF, who told France Info radio that “we discovered the problem a bit late” and that “we recognize that and we accept responsibility on that score.”

So far, 300 station platforms have been modified since work began in 2013, and the project is set to be complete in 2016.

"It can involve chipping a few centimeters off the edge of a platform, or moving an electricity power box located a bit too close to the platform edge," said RFF.

"It's a bit like buying a Ferrari that you want to fit into your garage, but then realizing your garage isn't quite Ferrari-sized, because up until now you didn't own a Ferrari," the company offered by way of a somewhat ill-fitting analogy.

RFF boss Jacques Rapoport responded along the same lines, promising the buck would not be passed on the consumer.

"These trains are new. Whenever we introduce new rolling stock, we need to change the infrastructure," he said.

But many French politicians from both sides of the aisle have nonetheless pounced on the blunder.

"With the price of train tickets steadily rising over the years, this waste of public money is absolutely insufferable," said Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-right National Front party. He further accused RFF of serving up a “gross underestimation” regarding costs for fixing the mistake.

Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, the head of France's ruling Socialist party, also weighed in with an air of incredulity.

"It's absolutely astounding. Frankly I don't understand," said Cambadelis, adding that bosses at the state-owned firm should step up and take responsibility.

France’s Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier earlier offered his comment on the situation, blaming the country’s “absurd rail system,” in reference to several measures passed by the government in 1997. He believes having the RFF and SNCF as two separate entities is not practical.

“This is what happens”, he told local BFMTV.

This issue will soon be tackled, however, as the SNCF and RFF will reportedly merge under reform plans slated to be rolled out in June.

Although RFF is a true pro in the train game, offering some of the fastest rides in Europe, it hasn’t been able to avoid some bad publicity in recent times, after a trans-Atlantic deal with a Maryland company in US fell through because of alleged WWII links the French company had had with the Vichy regime. This fact cost the giant a cool $2.2 billion, according to France 24.

During the German occupation of France, SNCF deported more than 76,000 Jews to concentration camps, of whom only 3,000 survived. There are now ongoing negotiations, with the US State Department hoping to reach an arrangement on compensating the victims’ families as soon as possible.

The company and the government are at odds, however, as to who exactly should cover that, with the SNCF saying it was only a “cog in the Nazi extermination machine,” placing the burden of payment with the government.