FOUR MONTHS of consultation on an unprecedented scale across France culminated at the end of October in a high-profile summit on the environment. During the event President Nicolas Sarkozy made some remarkable commitments on rail policy.

'We will make a massive investment in transport', proclaimed Sarkozy, who at that time had not witnessed the sight of deserted stations as staff began an indefinite strike on November 14 in protest over his plans to reform pensions. Specifically, the president promised that projects to add 2 000 km of high speed lines to the national network would be in hand by 2020, with studies launched for another 2 500 km. These include a scheme to put Clermont-Ferrand within 2 h of Paris, and the ambitious Transline scheme, previously known as T3A, for an 800 km inter-regional route from Lyon to Caen. According to the Ministry of Transport, discussions with regional authorities between now and mid-2008 will tackle routes, priorities and finance, with the government committed to making €16bn of funding available.

Sarkozy went on to suggest that the capacity released on conventional lines should be used for freight – he called for a cut of 2 million lorry trips a year on France's north-south trunk roads. This translates into the development of two high-performance autoroutes ferroviaires based on the Lorry-Rail scheme launched last March between Luxembourg and Perpignan, with trains departing at 15 min intervals; €100m of public funding would be provided for terminals and infrastructure improvements. In addition, a long-term loan worth €800m would cover purchase of specialist wagons.

No less remarkable is Sarkozy's promise to build 1 500 km of tram and dedicated bus routes in provincial cities over the next 10 years at a cost of €18bn. Admitting that 'the state had been wrong' to relinquish responsibility for developing public transport projects, he clearly sees light rail as an effective answer to road congestion and urban renewal – he had officiated at the opening of the Marseille tram network in July and was due to inaugurate Line 1 in Nice last month (p750).

Finally, the government wants construction of the Métrophérique automated orbital metro around Paris to go ahead, and proposes extension of RER Line E westwards into Normandie.

Admittedly, some of these projects are not new, while others are far-fetched, but the government has made it absolutely clear that rail offers many of the answers to the problems of road congestion, pollution and climate change.

Contrast this with the publication by the UK government – also at the end of October – of a 'framework document' entitled Towards a Sustainable Transport System. Buried in a torrent of verbiage are a few paragraphs about 'the new approach' to the Manchester – Birmingham – London corridor which is expected to run out of capacity by 2024. This would suggest the need for urgent action, so we are informed that 'the next step is to generate a broad range of options. This might include widening of motorways, active traffic management, road-pricing, or the construction of new rail capacity either through a conventional or a high speed line.' Definitely a commitment to save the environment there, then.