The Fat Controller’s Problem

So you have designed a new fleet of rail carriages costing 15bn euros to see France into the next generation of public transportation.

You have made sure that they are the state of the art – no expense spared.

You have made sure that the travelling public will flock to their seats to once again experience the unbridled joy of train travel.

You have made sure that the train platforms are the right shape and size to accommodate these new chariots of travel.

Well … lets just say that the French got two out of three.

The BBC, like many news outlets, last week reported:

The French train operator SNCF has discovered that 2,000 new trains it ordered at a cost of 15bn euros ($20.5bn; £12.1bn) are too wide for many regional platforms.

The BBC’s Christian Fraser in Paris says that it is an embarrassing blunder that has so far cost the rail operator over 50m euros ($68.4m; £40.6m).

Our correspondent says that the cost is likely to rise even further.

Construction work has already started to reconfigure station platforms.

The work will allow new trains room to pass through. But officials say that there are still 1,000 platforms to be adjusted.

The error seems to have happened because the national rail operator RFF gave the wrong dimensions to train company SNCF.

Our correspondent says that they measured platforms built less than 30 years ago, overlooking the fact that many of France’s regional platforms were built more than 50 years ago when trains were a little slimmer.

The platform edges are too close to the tracks in some stations which means the trains cannot get in, officials say.

A spokesman for the RFF confirmed they had “discovered the problem a bit late”.

Transport Minister Frederic Cuvillier blamed an “absurd rail system” for the problems.

“When you separate the rail operator from the train company,” he said, “this is what happens.”

Whilst it is tempting to mock the French (you know you want to!) the situation gives rise to three elements of project governance worth considering:

  • How was it possible that with a project this size that there was not a fit for purpose analysis undertaken?  How was it that someone (anyone!) didn’t sit down and process map out the totality of the user experience – of which one would have thought that entering the platform is a rather fundamental aspect.  That this was overlooked does not give much confidence to the quality of rest of the scenario testing that was applied to this project
  • That RFF “discovered the problem a bit late” screams that there has been / is / likely to continue to be poor communication on this project.  Was it that the problem was always known and that there was a culture of ‘no bad news’ on the project until such time as it was unavoidable that the bad news would surface?  Or was it a case of the problem only recently becoming known in which case what does that say about the quality of the issue identification processes within RFF?
  • Does anyone else have a now uneasy feeling about this project?  Even if it is not representative of the whole; irrespective of the quality of the finished product or the redesign of the platforms to accommodate what ends up happening when there is such an oversight is that it can contaminate how people view the totality of the project.  RFF will need to live with the public relations credibility issues of this matter for many train journeys to come.

All aboard!

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