Two Road Systems Contrasted

For the second of the 4-day weekends in May I decided to go to London to visit a couple of mates who were in town.  Such trips are possible from Paris, but weren’t from Lagos and Sakhalin.  I decided to drive, having checked the Eurostar prices and found it an absolute fleecing (being a bank holiday, and me having left it late in any case), and driving had the added bonus of being able to visit a British supermarket and fill up with tonnes of stuff that you can’t get easily in France (e.g. Shreddies, custard creams, Branston Pickle, Colman’s packet sauces, Jaffa Cakes, Ambrosia rice pudding in a can, etc.).

I also wanted to give my car a proper run-out, as since buying it almost from new (it was an ex-demonstrator) I’d only really bumbled about the outskirts of Paris in it (but enough to cop a speeding fine, which was thankfully only 40 Euros).  For those that are interested, it’s a BMW 330d M-Sport, and goes like shit off a shovel.  In France diesel is cheaper than petrol by around 20 cents per litre; I think this is a consequence of the French having been pioneers in diesel engine development decades ago, and as a result most cars in France are diesels.  I looked at buying an M3 (and becoming a drug dealer in Rusholme), but I’m not a speed junky and a car like that would be wasted on me, plus the fuel consumption would have gotten very expensive.  So I opted for a top-end diesel, and so far I’m very happy with it (except when I spy an M3).

I booked a ticket on the Eurotunnel in advance and left Paris early on the Thursday morning, and got onto the A1 towards Calais.  The road was fantastic, virtually empty of traffic, with a surface like silk and a speed limit of 130kph (81mph), with only a few speed cameras that came with ample warning in advance.  Driving the route was a pleasure, and I made the Eurotunnel terminal with an hour to spare.  I had never taken the Eurotunnel before and was curious to see how it worked.  Very efficiently, is the answer.  I approached the barrier, it read my number plate and the screen welcomed me by name and asked if I wanted to take the earlier train or wait for the one which I’d booked.  I chose the earlier one, the machine printed me out a label to hang from the mirror, and then…we hit the bottleneck of British immigration, as usual (the French just waved everyone through: they don’t care who is leaving).  After that we all queued up in ranks and each rank drove up to the train in turn, drove onto the actual train, all the way along on an upper or lower deck, until you come to a stop as the train fills up from the front, then they close some doors and within 20 minutes you’re on your way.  You can stand in a narrow walkway beside your car or remain inside it, but either way you pop out the other side after 33 minutes and a few minutes after that you drive off the train in the same manner you drove on, almost straight onto the M20 without stopping.  I was impressed.

Which is more than I can say for the state of the M20.  The road was patched tarmac for some stretches, rough concrete for others, and chock-full of lorries.  British (and foreign) lorries successfully turn 3-lane motorways into 1-lane roads by having one of them travelling at 55mph overtake another doing 54mph and thus taking several miles to do it.  They used to do this way back when I lived in the UK and the practice still continues.  Bumping along on a crappy surface, continually braking behind lorries and being squeezed into the outside lane, the comparison with the French autoroutes I’d left behind was not favourable.

There are likely several reasons for this.  Firstly, French autoroutes are toll roads and operated by companies (either state-owned or private) which collect the tolls and are responsible for their maintenance.  For a country which thinks dance lessons and venues for adults to play Scalextric (seriously) are services for which the state should pay and the public enjoy free of charge, it is highly surprising that the major roads should be pay-as-you-go.  But I guess the concept has been there for so long that everyone is used to it.  And they don’t have a vehicle tax.  As a result, the money French road operators collect goes on maintaining the roads.  By contrast, the money collected from vehicle and fuel taxes in the UK gets spent on diversity outreach coordinators in the Ministry of Sport and Culture, and road maintenance is kept at an absolute minimum, if it’s done at all.

Secondly, the French have a different attitude about roads altogether.  If somebody suggested putting a decent road down in the UK, a vocal minority would start protesting that the roads should be kept shit to “discourage driving”.  Such people think everyone should travel by train instead, but they are also shit.  In France, the trains are fantastic (assuming there are no strikes, which admittedly is a big assumption) and so are the roads: they don’t deliberately keep one shit to encourage everyone to use the equally shit other.  There seems to be no taboo about a lot of people driving a long way along the roads in France.

Thirdly, the French seem to keep the lorries off the roads.  I don’t know how, but French roads are not clogged up with lorries.

Fourthly, with toll roads you get rid of all the knobbers who are going nowhere in particular and are just “out for a drive”, sitting in the middle lane on a Sunday afternoon doing 60mph and listening to Gardeners’ Question Time.  Everyone who is on a French autoroute has paid money to be there and is going somewhere for a purpose.  The traffic reflects that.

And thus I discovered that driving around in France is a pleasant experience, and I will write more on that shortly.

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15 thoughts on “Two Road Systems Contrasted

  1. A couple of years ago a friend and I did a drive from London to Munich and back. We went there via Strasbourg, and came back via Luxembourg and Lille. The general verdict was that the quality of the roads (from best to worse) was French tolled autoroutes, German (non-tolled) autobahns (which were of variable standards, some of the older ones being built to a lower standard than newer ones and not being very good), Belgian (non-tolled) autoroutes, and French untolled autoroutes. In particular, the contrast between the tolled A26 from Calais to Lens (lovely) and the parallel untolled A25 from Dunkirk to Lille (horrible) was striking.

  2. I agree the A1 is a good drive – only slightly spoilt by the A86 to reach it which is in a terrible condition. You also need to watch the A1 if you return into Paris at peak time as quite often you queue from Roissy.

    If you get bored then from where you live the A16 would also be an option – there can’t be much in it in terms of time and the A16 has always been empty even during peak periods.

  3. Very much agreed on your observations. Could the reason for seeing less haulage in France be that a good percentage of EU imported goods pass through British or Irish ports? Also the UK road network is much more dense, and as you point out – less well maintained. Oh, and trucks are banned from the roads on Sundays in France. 🙂

    Great choice of car. Just be careful where you park – people can be so envious here!

  4. You’re comparing a road system uncongested because the French “economy” is in the toilet, with one under massive pressure thanks to a booming economy? I’ll take the UK, thanks.

  5. @ Jackart,

    Well, yes…but France’s moribund economy still delivers them decent roads, whereas Britain’s superior economy…doesn’t. And you can project this onto so many other things that you’re left with the conclusion that the quality of life is higher in France despite the inferior economy. But then again, I knew this already: looking at economy in isolation would leave you to conclude that Nigeria is nicer than Estonia (it isn’t). So Britain can keep their lorries, and I’ll enjoy the smooth, French roads. And the wine, and the restaurants, and the service…

    As for the BMW remark…I agree, most BMW owners are tossers, but I attempt to redeem myself by getting every cyclist I see with the door. 😉

  6. @ PeteC,

    Good point on the parking – I’ve got a space in the underground car park under my building – and I don’t take the car into Paris centre. I’m not worried about the envy, just the normal method in which the Parisians park their cars and treat other vehicles! Every one of them parked on the street has dents and scratches, and bashing another car while parking your own appears to be acceptable.

  7. Aren’t you heading for trouble with your DPF if all you do is pootle about in the ‘burbs?

  8. @dearieme,

    Don’t worry, it’s been plenty thrashed on the autoroutes since. 🙂

  9. BMWs are like public hairs; every cunt has one.

    Take a motorbike from Caen to Nantes. Brilliant roads with nobody on!

  10. I remember belting south on the empty motorway from Calais, thinking “it’s British contributions to the EU that paid for this”.

  11. I have ben involved with a lot of highway pavement design and construction on major highways in the UK, US and Oz although it has been a long time since I was involved in this in the UK. The design standard in the UK was very high and given the absolute low quantity of new roads I can only guess that low maintenance is the issue. That said. on the basis that construction quality is still high and materials are still sound, it must be maintenance that is the problem.

    Every time I am back in the UK I always frown upon the amount of and general acceptance of ponded water on pavements, not saying I have seen this on the motorways but there is an acceptance of ponded waters on pavements, which means fines pump out, subgrades soften and surfaces break up.

    As for the motor, I hate it, only because I am a BMW type.

  12. The design standard in the UK was very high and given the absolute low quantity of new roads I can only guess that low maintenance is the issue. That said. on the basis that construction quality is still high and materials are still sound, it must be maintenance that is the problem.

    The designs are fine, it is the materials and maintenance which is the problem.

    As for the motor, I hate it, only because I am a [MB] type.

    I used to be, 10 years ago, but I think they’ve lost ground to BMW in recent years. So have Audi, IMO.

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