Humiliation for rail operator that spent millions on the wrong trains

France Transport Strike

French rail operator, SNCF, has spent millions on new trains. Unfortunately, nobody thought to check their height, and it turns out that on international journeys to Italy, these trains are going to be too tall to go through Italian tunnels. They may be high-speed, but passengers are going to waste valuable time at the Italian border, where they all have to get off the train and transfer into a smaller one, according to the Nice Matin newspaper.

It's part of a €15 billion revamp of the regional express trains, which according to the Daily Mail has suffered a number of blunders. In May it emerged that the trains were too wide for many platforms, so the firm had to spend a small fortune knocking off the edges of the platforms at 1,300 railways stations. The train operator is now expected to have to go through a similar process, knocking a few millimetres off the tunnels too.
The Daily Telegraph reported that the width problem came about when the track owner gave the SNFC the wrong measurements. It provided the measurements for platforms built in the previous 30 years - forgetting that many of the older ones were wider. It's not known where the tunnel problem originated.

Great engineering blunders

The French transport minister described the situation as "comically tragic". However, the train operator can take some comfort from the fact that this isn't the first embarrassing miscalculation to heap humiliation onto a company. Here are five of the most shaming.

1. The Mars Orbiter
This was supposed to be the first interplanetary weather satellite, but it ran into problems after the NASA team used metric units and one of its contractors used imperial ones. As a result the probe got so close to Mars that it's thought to have been destroyed by the planet's atmosphere.

2. The Laufenburg bridge
Different countries have different ways of calculating 'sea level', so when the bridge was built between Switzerland and Germany in 2003, the engineers knew they needed to account for the 27 cm difference in how the countries measured sea level. Unfortunately instead of cancelling it, their calculations doubled it, so one side was more than half a metre too high - and had to be lowered before the two sides could be connected.

3. The Millennium bridge
The designers of the bridge forgot to account for the 'synchronised footfall' effect of people crossing it - this effect means that as a bridge starts to sway, people will adjust their footsteps to the rhythm of the bridge's movements - making the bounce a whole lot worse. When it first opened to mark the new Millennium in 2000, the bridge was considered dangerous, so it was shut for shock absorbers to be applied, and didn't open again until 2002.

4. The 'Walkie Talkie' skyscraper
In 2013, one man parked his Jaguar on Eastcheap in the City of London, near the new 'walkie talkie' skyscraper. Two hours later he returned to find that parts of his car had been melted by sunlight reflecting off the building. The developers had to install a sunshade - and compensate anyone whose vehicles were damaged as a result of the building design.

5. The Hubble telescope
The first pictures sent back by the multimillion dollar NASA space telescope were fuzzy, because the mirror was marginally too flat - by about the thickness of a human hair. One theory was that a tiny blob of paint on the device being used to measure the thickness meant that the measurements were wrong. It took three years for scientists to work out how to cancel out the effects of this error.

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Humiliation for rail operator that spent millions on the wrong trains

Train tickets have never been so expensive. On the ten most popular routes, prices have risen between 141% and 246% since privatisation. Fortunately, there are ways to cut the cost.

Perhaps the biggest saving is by booking in advance. Cheap tickets are available about 12 weeks in advance, so make a note in your diary to check then.

You can tell if you’re too early, because none of the tickets will be marked as ‘limited availability’ and the price for every journey on the day will be the same. When the cheap tickets are released, you’ll see the prices vary depending on the popularity of each particular service.

If you can commit to a particular time, and book well before you travel, you can get an ‘advance’ or ‘super advance’ ticket, which will cut the cost dramatically.

The only proviso is that you need to be certain you will make that specific train, or you will have to buy another ticket at full price on the day.

Buying tickets in advance is always cheaper than on the day, and you don’t have to book it ages before you travel to get an ‘advance’ ticket.

The train companies vary as to how late you can leave it. Some say you must call before 6pm the day before, others before midnight, and a handful of them up to 15 minutes before you travel. It’s worth checking the rules for your train operator, and making a saving even if you only know your plans the day before you travel.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that a return ticket is always cheaper, but in reality it can often be beaten by two single tickets - because some of the best deals are only available on singles.

So before you travel, it’s worth visiting a website like redspottedhanky or thetrainline, both of which show the prices for all the available single and return tickets.

If you don’t need to travel at rush hour, then you can save by buying an off-peak ticket. You’ll need to check with the train operator when it is valid and what the restrictions are, but it can bring the cost down substantially.

If you are traveling at a particularly quiet time of day, you could even get a super off-peak ticket, so if you’re flexible it’s worth checking when the tickets are cheapest. The Journey Planner service on the National Rail site is a useful place to start.

Instead of buying a single ticket, you can split the journey into two or three legs, and buy a ticket for each leg.

There’s no logical explanation for it, but often chopping a journey up can slash the price by as much as 50%, and as long as the train stops in these places you don’t have to get off and on again for the ticket to be valid.

Previously you’d have to do the legwork yourself, trying out different ways of splitting the route, but will now do the work for you, and find the cheapest way to split your journey.

As a rough rule of thumb, if you spend £90 or more on train travel each year, you could save money if you qualify for a railcard. This is because most of the cards cost £30 and give you a third off your fares.

There are a number of different cards for different groups of people, including the 16-25 Railcard for younger people, Family and Friends railcard (for adults travelling with children), the Two Together card (for two people travelling together), the Senior railcard for the over 60s, and the Disabled Persons railcard.

If you travel regularly on the same route, a season ticket offers a significant discount.

Don’t forget that you could also save substantially by getting a split season ticket. Given that many annual season tickets have now breached the £5,000 barrier, saving 10% on the cost of the journey will make a real difference to your budget.


France Spends Tens of Billions of Dollars on Trains That Are Too Wide

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