Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Deadly level crossings

Yesterday, for the second time in a week, I caught the inter-city train from St-Marcellin to Grenoble in order to spend time exploring the archives concerning the history of my property. This excursion is truly luxurious in the sense that the traveler arrives in the center of Grenoble and gets swept up immediately by a tram that takes you to any place whatsoever inside the Alpine city.

At about the same time I was making the return voyage, seven adolescents met their deaths in a level-crossing catastrophe, elsewhere on this regional transport network, up towards the lake of Geneva, when their bus stalled on the rails.

Here's the scene today, as authorities attempt to determine what happened:

In my recent article entitled Doubling the line [display], I evoked the anguishing theme of level crossings, of which there are still some 15 thousand in rural France.

The following specimen, which I use almost daily, is a true death trap:

Normal French Cartesian logic seems to have got screwed up here in a potentially mortal manner. Since it's a dangerous crossing, lying just alongside the busy highway from St Marcellin to Romans, somebody decided that orange lamps should flash here constantly, aimed at warning motorists that they should behave cautiously. But these orange lamps interfere with the more urgent message of a red lamp that goes into action periodically when the barriers are about to descend, because a train is arriving. Motorists who arrive here regularly, like me, day in day out, end up ignoring the constantly-flashing orange lamps, insofar as they do not indicate any kind of imminent danger. Consequently, they're conditioned subconsciously to ignore also the red lamp, whose flashes signal a matter of life or death. To put it bluntly, this place is waiting for a mortal accident to occur.


  1. Crumbs!
    Well given what I've heard of French bureaucracy there's probably a report in triplicate somewhere about it.

    Found your blog via Aussie Bloggers... it seems you are living my life... my dream life.

  2. Hi cellobella : Thanks for your comment. I'm pleased to know that fellow Australians can find me through the Aussie Bloggers community... which appears to be a dynamic and well-organized group.

    Living in France is not necessarily idyllic. Not always. On the other hand, I can't imagine any more fascinating context. I say to myself every day that I'm privileged to be able to live in France, and I feel happy and honored to have been granted French nationality. Australians would no doubt complain about the weather here on the edge of the French Alps. It's not exactly the kind of place where home-owners would contemplate installing an outdoor swimming pool.

    Incidentally, there's maybe some kind of a misunderstanding in your remark about French bureaucracy. Since 1962, when I set foot in Paris for the first time, I've never at any moment been bothered by excessive bureaucracy. On the contrary, French administrative behavior is simultaneously Cartesian (inspired by the philosophical method of René Descartes) and Napoleonic (inspired by the great Corsican planner). Today, with the assistance of computers, French administrative procedures are highly efficient and friendly, indeed exemplary.

    Anecdote: The superb French administrative system has kept records of every bit of paid work I've ever done since arriving here... which enables me to receive quite good retirement benefits today, and for the rest of my life. In Australia, on the other hand, where I was the first computer programmer hired by IBM in 1957, neither the administration nor even the IBM company itself seems to have any traces of that job.

  3. This morning, while driving to Chatte, I happened to be stopped by the arrival of a train at this complicated level crossing... which is a relatively rare event, since there are not many trains on the line between Grenoble and Valence. So, I had a chance of observing in detail exactly what happens. Normally, as I said, the pair of orange lamps flash non-stop. When a train is approaching, they cease to flash and turn hard-on orange, with the meaning of any normal orange traffic light. Then rapidly, all three lamps turn hard-on red, just before the barrier descends. Theoretically, this barrage of red is certainly an incentive to halt. But I still maintain that the non-stop flashing orange lamps are a dangerous distraction, whose effective purpose escapes me.