French rail officials say that “human error has already been ruled out” as a cause of the train crash that killed six people last week. But it was a human error, or at least a political error: the error was for the government to put most available resources into building new high-speed rail lines while it let existing lines deteriorate.
Officially, the cause of the crash was a piece of a switch that apparently broke while the train was going through the switch. But that probably happened because the piece that broke was old and worn out.
While the French Transport Minister claimed that “there was no indication that a lack of investment in maintaining the system’s infrastructure was at fault” for this particular crash, he admitted that most of the conventional rail infrastructure is more than 30 years old, meaning it needs to be replaced. “The situation is severe,” the minister added, “with the degradation in recent years of traditional train lines, due to a lack of resources.”
France is spending 400 million euros this year on capital replacement of its conventional rail system. That sounds like a lot, but it spent more than twice that much last year just buying thirty new high-speed rail trainsets.
So the politicians want to have it both ways: the crash isn’t their fault, but they want to use the crash as an excuse to increase spending on rail infrastructure. Maybe if they contented themselves with spending only on rail infrastructure that actually pays for itself without tax subsidies, both taxpayers and rail riders would be happy.