Monsieur, Le train, elle est trop grande
While the Church of England prays for God to halt the HS2 high speed rail project, California politicians use HSR as a political bargaining chip in their state’s budget debate, Koreans run tests on a wireless HS train, Turkey’s new HSR has been sabotaged 270 times by anti-technology Muslim extremists, the Chinese think about building a HS train to the US, the French, long known for arrogance and a stultifying superiority complex, have received a bit of comeuppance in the form of one of the most colossal blunders in business history.
The error occurred when Reseau Ferre de France (RFF) sent faulty dimensions for its train platforms to Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer Francais (SNCF) who, in turn, passed the information along to Bombardier who built the trains.
The scandal is the largest for SNCF since it was called a “cog in the Nazi extermination machine.” For France, this could not come at a worse time as it is cash-strapped and dealing with persistently high unemployment.
The Mistaken Order
The overall order for 2,000 new trains, costing $20 billion (€15 billion), resulted in 341 trains being too wide, by about 7.8 inches (20cm), for 1,300 platforms that must now be widened. The new trains will be part of a new regional express system expected to go into service in 2016. It is not clear how much time platform trimming will add to the timeline but the cost is estimated at $68 million (€50 million).
A Comic Drama in a Time of Austerity
According to a satirical weekly called “Le Canard Encha” and conspiracy theorists, the mistake was intentional and an attempt to solve France’s persistently high unemployment rate in one fell swoop.
More level-headed observers in France trace the problem to a dysfunctional state of affairs, something akin to arteriosclerosis, between SNCF and RFF in which these separate organizations view each other as rivals and the flow of information between them is insufficient.
No one should be gloating too much over this mistake as it is just a matter of time before it becomes “our turn” again to make a big mistake. The use of two different measurement systems by NASA and Lockheed Martin in 1999 for the Mars Orbiter cost $125 million or about $165 million in today’s dollars when the uncontrollable orbiter was lost in space.