The following entry is a record in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed or troubled projects from around the world.

SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français) / RFF (Réseau Ferré de France) – France
Project type : New trains
Project name : Regiolis / Regio 2N
Date : May 2014  Cost : In the region of $15B Euro

Synopsis :
Even a single missed detail has the potential to cause significant problems.  Having purchased 2,000 new trains French Railway company SNCF found out how one bad assumption can ‘derail’ a project. Following the arrival of the first of its new fleet of regional trains, SNCF discovered that the newly designed trains are too wide to fit into many of the railway stations they were intended to serve. As the British Newspaper, the Independent put it “The country that brought the TGV high-speed train to Europe has accidentally created another first – the TFT, or the Too Fat Train”.

Regio 2N

A Regio 2N train (Source:Wiki commons) – click for larger image

While the trains are compatible with railway stations constructed in the prior 30 years, older stations were built to a variety of other standards. For many of those stations the new trains were too wide to fit into the station. Discovering the issue late in the project lifecycle (post delivery of the trains apparently), the French had the choice of modifying a $15B Euro fleet of trains or rebuilding station platforms to make them compatible with the trains. To date more than $68M has been spent adjusting platforms and reports indicate there are more than 1,000 stations still needing to be worked on.

Information provided by a French government spokesman indicates that the problem originated because the national rail operator RFF (the company operating the stations) gave the wrong dimensions to train company SNCF (there one running the train purchase project). According to reports from the BBC, 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.” To me that sounds a bit simplistic.  Such breakdowns can easily occur even within a single organization and the project stands as a reminder of the need to challenge assumptions and pay attention to the details.

UPDATED – Jul 2015 – French trains too tall for Italian tunnels – Not only are the trains too wide, they are also too high to fit through some of the tunnels in the French Alps.

Contributing factors as reported in the press:
Bad assumptions. Failure to address details. Communications breakdown between organizations.

Reference links :

  1. Two thousand new French trains ‘too fat for railway’ (news report with video)
  2. French red faces over trains that are ‘too wide’
  3. Mind le gap! France spends $15 billion on trains that are too fat for 1,300 station platforms
  4. How a French rail company spent £12bn on trains that are “too wide”
  5. Video showing handover ceremony for the first of the Regio 2 trains (maybe the celebration was a bit premature)