France shows that train travel can work, George Pyle argues, if it’s fast and tied into local transit

France’s intercity train routes have proven smooth as silk, with lessons for Utah, Idaho and Nevada to consider.

(Lewis Joly | The Associated Press) An empty Eurostar platform is pictured at Gare du Nord train station in Paris, Monday Dec. 21, 2020.

“The American arrives in Paris with a few French phrases he has culled from a conversational guide or picked up from a friend who owns a beret.”

— Fred Allen

Le Havre, France • I’ve always been a fan of riding trains.

The good ones spare me the stress of driving and the risk of falling asleep at the wheel, and I avoid all the hassle of getting to the airport and getting through security. And the carbon footprint is much smaller.

Thus I paid attention when Utah’s transportation gnomes announced they are looking at rolling out more passenger rail service.

The idea, Utah Department of Transportation officials explained to members of the Utah Legislature recently, is to seek 500,000 federal bucks to study supplementing the east-west Amtrak route that runs from Chicago to (almost) San Francisco via Salt Lake City with a north-south system that connects points in Idaho, including Boise, through Ogden, Salt Lake City and St. George to Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox was on a trade mission to France and the United Kingdom.

Just in case Cox did not ride any French trains during his trip, let me tell you a little about mine. Which, totally by coincidence, happed at about the same time.

The country’s reputation for a fast and reliable passenger rail service, including the Paris Metro, is a big part of the reason why I’m here. The results have been a little mixed.

In Paris and environs, the promise that ticket agents — where you can find one — speak English is not fully met, though they try. (One Metro agent playfully pretended not to understand that I wanted to go to Juvisy when I pronounced it joo-va-see rather than zhuuu-va-see. And I don’t even want to talk about how I was pronouncing Le Havre.)

The ticket machines can be hard for a non-Parisian novice to understand and the tickets sometimes fail to get you through the turnstiles. I’ve more than once bought more expensive tickets than I needed to just to keep the line moving.

Air conditioning onboard is hit and miss (as it is throughout France). Stations can be large and confusing and transfers, even when free, sometimes require so many steps from platform to platform that you wonder if you should have skipped the train altogether and just walked.

But the intercity routes have proven smooth as silk, with lessons for Utah, Idaho and Nevada to consider.

For passenger rail service to work, it has to overcome the natural habit Americans have to hop in their cars. The UDOT report already failed on one key part of that.

UDOT put the rail travel time from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas at seven to nine hours one way.

That’s not going to cut it.

Not when it takes six hours to drive yourself. (I know people who say they do it in five.) Go whenever you want, stop wherever you want and have your car to get around in once you are there.

But if a new American passenger rail system were to be a high-speed operation like those in Europe, Japan and China, the SLC to Vegas run could be as little as 2.5 hours. So could the Boise-Ogden-Salt Lake trip.

If those proved to be reliable timetables, and they ran, say, four times a day, that could be a game-changer. Well worth it for quick trips to the casinos or Raiders and A’s games.

In France, folks can take seven hours to drive from Paris to Marseille or three hours on the high-speed train. Book ahead online and the trip can be as little as €99 (about $108) one-way, with trains leaving just about every hour all day long.

Another huge factor is whether the rail passenger feels stranded at a remote depot once arrived at the destination city.

In my very limited experience (Paris, Chartres and Le Havre) what works here is that the intercity rail comes well into the cities it serves and ties directly into local public transit.

In Paris, the national SNCF system shares stations with both the RER system (think FrontRunner, with five lines instead of one) and the Metro (TRAX, but with 308 stations instead of 50 and trains arriving every four minutes instead of every 15).

Salt Lake City has a good head start on that aspect of rail travel. Las Vegas, not so much. Boise? Well, there’s always Uber.

Building such a rail system from practically scratch would be both an economy-boosting, greenhouse gas-reducing public works triumph — unlike just widening I-15 again — and gawd-awfully expensive — like widening I-15 again.

Rail yards with the necessary interconnections would require a lot of land. Though a lot of it could be underground, resembling SPECTRE’s huge secret headquarters, reducing the degree to which an extensive rail system mimics the problem of building more highways — taking up space and tearing down houses.

France’s state-owned SNCF has become a multinational that has something to do with rail service in 168 countries, bragging about being a much more environmentally friendly alternative to both autos and airplanes.

Another Utah trade mission might be in order.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, The Salt Lake Tribune’s Opinion editor, is partial to wearing caps. But he does not own a beret.