Sunday, July 22, 2007


On this sunny Sunday morning, I decided to drive to the Valence train station to buy a return ticket to England for five days in August. It's a splendid new station out in the countryside, catering primarily for TGV [high-speed train] links.

I've become accustomed to using the Internet to make purchases of all kinds, but I prefer a person-to-person contact in the case of train tickets. I have the impression [but I may be wrong] that the human operator in a train station has access to more information than an Internet user, and knows how to find an optimal solution to queries in a minimum of time. Above all, I guess I'm old-fashioned, since I simply like the idea of dropping in at a railway station to buy train tickets from a human employee. Besides, in the special case of the Valence TGV station, I get a kick out of visiting such a nice place, whether it's a matter of buying tickets, catching a train or picking up visitors.

On the other side of the planet, in my native New South Wales, people don't seem to have such a positive attitude towards trains as they do here in France. A few days ago, in The Sydney Morning Herald, there was a derogatory but well-written article entitled The curse of CityRail [read], which started out as follows:

Sydney is supposed to be a major global city. We're constantly telling ourselves how world-class we are, and major surveys keep agreeing - most recently we were ranked fifth best city in the world to visit. And we are the largest city in a wealthy, highly developed nation. So can someone explain to me, in extremely simple terms, why our train system is reminiscent of a third world country - or, worse still, England?

Last year, I spent no more than a month out in Australia, but that was more than sufficient to provide me with ample evidence concerning the antiquated train system. First, I wasn't able to visit Braidwood by train, because the railway doesn't even go there! Second, one afternoon, I spent over an hour in a halted Sydney north-shore suburban train, for reasons I never learned. Third, my trip up to Grafton and back provided me—without my asking—with old memories of my adolescence, because the train system doesn't seem to have evolved in any noticeable fashion since then. But I wouldn't go out of my way to complain about anything, because I have the impression that this antiquated railway system corresponds to my overall conception of my native land and its people. Australia is a place where nothing much has ever happened, and probably never will. Maybe the constant humid heat provokes torpidity, preventing people from being creative. In any case, every country has the trains it deserves.

The above-mentioned article in The Sydney Morning Herald includes a significant reflection: We're constantly telling ourselves how world-class we are... To my mind, most praise of Sydney is indeed locally-produced hype. I'm not so sure that many non-Australians are convinced that Sydney is "world-class", whatever that might mean. For European visitors, Sydney is definitely not a charming city. Once you've had a beer in one of the few surviving pubs at the Rocks, strolled through the Botanic Gardens, wandered around the Darling Harbour area and taken a ferry to Manly, you've "done" Sydney. There's truly nothing more to be seen there... unless, of course, you're a native-born Australian, like me, who finds it meaningful to visit the place where Braidwood bushrangers were hanged, and to drive with one of my sisters to the shoreline of La Pérouse, where the vessels of the French navigator were seen for the last time. In other words, Australia is a great place for Australians, who are sensitive to its interest and charms, and don't necessarily mind if the train system is shitty. Things only start to go haywire if you're tempted to make silly and unnecessary comparisons between Sydney and great cities such as London, Paris, Rome, Venice, Jerusalem...

The author of the article in The Sydney Morning Herald mentions a recent ranking of Sydney as the "fifth best city in the world to visit". To appreciate correctly the significance of such a judgment, one would need to know more about its origins. If, for example, we're talking of a poll conducted by a travel magazine that caters essentially for globe-trotting Florida widows, then we should view its findings with a certain relativity. In any case, visitors of that kind don't catch trains, neither in New South Wales nor anywhere else.

Having said all this, I do believe that the fellow in charge of trains in New South Wales [whose identity I ignore] should pull his finger out, and look around for ideas about improvements and evolution. And I'm sure I'm not the only Australian with this opinion.

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