Cash-strapped France will have to trim back some 1,300 rail platforms at a cost of 50 million euros after realising its brand new trains are too wide to fit in the stations, rail operators admitted on Wednesday.
France's secretary of state for transport, Frederic Cuvillier, called it a
"tragically comical", "mind-boggling" mix-up, blaming a lack of coordination between France's two state rail bodies, the SNCF and the RFF.
Cuvillier said he has asked the chiefs of both entities to launch internal investigations into the costly gaffe, saying: "We have to identify how these decisions were made."
The Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer (SNCF) and the Reseau Ferre de France (RFF) acknowledged the embarrassing situation in a joint statement on Wednesday after it was revealed by satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine.
Introducing "wider trains in response to the needs of the public requires us to modernise 1,300 of the 8,700 platforms in the French rail network," they said.
According to the Canard Enchaine, the SNCF drew up the specifications for the new-generation trains, including the carriage width.
"But the SNCF's clever engineers forgot to check on the reality on the ground," where the space between platforms varies between stations, it said.
The problem affects 182 regional trains supplied by French manufacturer Alstom and 159 from Canada's Bombardier, due to come into service by 2016.
So far, 300 station platforms have been adapted since work began in 2013, with the project set for completion in 2016.
"It can involve chipping a few centimetres 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 realising your garage isn't quite Ferrari-sized, because up until now you didn't own a Ferrari," it offered by way of analogy.
Butt of jokes
The mix-up drew strong condemnation across the political spectrum, leading to clumsy efforts at damage control by the top rail brass.
RFF boss Jacques Rapoport gave his personal guarantee that ticket prices would not be affected.
"These trains are new. Whenever we introduce new rolling stock, we need to change the infrastructure," he said.
But the explanations failed to satisfy politicians.
"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.
Le Pen accused the rail authorities of downplaying the real cost, saying the 50-million-euro ($68 million) figure was a "gross underestimation".
Main opposition leader Jean-Francois Cope from the centre-right UMP party called it a "Kafkaesque" situation and the head of France's ruling Socialist party was equally scathing.
"It's absolutely astounding. Frankly, I don't understand," said Jean-Christophe Cambadelis.
Valerie Rabault, the Socialist rapporteur from the parliamentary budget committee, meanwhile said SNCF head Guillaume Pepy should resign.
"Fifty million euros is a lot of money and we are the laughing stock of the international press," she said.
The SNCF and RFF are to be merged into one entity under reform plans to be unveiled in June.
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