“Train, the new battle of rail”, on France 5: investigation into a mode of transport that rows

“The train will be the mode of transport of the 21st century, if it survives the 20th century

“Train, the new battle of rail”, on France 5: investigation into a mode of transport that rows

“The train will be the mode of transport of the 21st century, if it survives the 20th century. » The prophecy is from Louis Armand, engineer and polytechnician, who entered the railways in 1938, a figure in the Résistance-Fer network in 1939-1945, before becoming general director of the SNCF in 1949, then president from 1955 to 1958.

Promising, the quote – highlighted on a black background from the introduction – seems to announce the progress of the documentary: after a first part devoted to the degradation of the SNCF (in a century, the railway network has been reduced by half), a second would promote new rail commitments to increase its role in transport.

The ecological transition requires the promotion of rail to reduce the use of planes and roads, both for passengers and for goods. With an added touch of affectivity in France, where the “rail worker parent” is one of the most shared common denominators – as noted in 2020 by director Virginie Linhart in her excellent Rail Saga.

Good-natured reporting

In The New Battle of the Rail, it is François Mitterrand, whose father was a station manager, and Emmanuel Macron, “grandson of a railway worker”, who embody this lineage. “We are going to redevelop rail freight, night trains, small lines,” the current President of the Republic promised in the spring as part of a 100 billion euro rail recovery plan. After a long sequence on the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express, the documentary will show that this is not the case.

Retro archives are always sweet for nostalgic people. Here they will take great pleasure in seeing old advertisements, old sidewalk microphones or reliving the major stages in the evolution of SNCF policy, since the rise of the TGV, which overshadows the trains daily life since 1981, until the arrival of the TGV M, finally scheduled for mid-2025, including the return of Paris-Nice at night, inaugurated by Prime Minister Jean Castex in May 2021.

These sequences alternate with good-natured reports from those who defend “their” train: members of the POLT defense association (the Paris-Orléans-Limoges-Toulouse line); of the Aubrac line (Paris-Clermont-Béziers), which owes its survival to the ArcelorMittal factory which it supplies with steel coils. “Without a train, the promise of zero carbon in 2050 disappears,” underlines actor François Morel, in the narration.

Lifeless stations, disused tracks… Images of abandonment are multiplying. With, implicitly, the threat: to despise rural areas is to risk a new revolt of the “yellow vests”. And a question: does it take an accident to change things? After the Paris-Limoges derailment on July 12, 2013, in Brétigny-sur-Orge, in Essonne (7 dead, more than 400 injured), 2 billion euros were invested in the POLT line.