Au Bistro (23k)

Tunnels, Mad Cows and More Tunnels

Paris:- Saturday, 25. May 1996:- This column is evolving in a way that has nothing to do with the glacial speed with which I write it. As the week goes by, I read the papers and I talk to people and I see things; and today I try to wrap it up into one package. What I never considered when it started, was that there would be 'continuing' stories like the 'Mad Cow' business.

With all the murder and mayhem that fills daily papers, you must wonder why I continue with this impossibly silly story.

The reason is simple: it is all part or the grand adventure of European Union. Instead of having rebels and revolutions, we have 'bureaucrats' in Brussels - who are trying to formulate the rules of a future mega-state out of a hodge-podge of a patchwork of countries. For purely local reasons, any one of these countries can poke a stick through the spokes. Britain's official handling of the 'Mad Cow' business is one of these sticks.

Also, consumer affairs in many European countries do not have as high a priority as in others - and Brussels is trying to flatten the differences. There are certainly 'greenies' in Britain, but the Tories of John Major are blue; some right down to their socks.

They do not seem to understand that already over-polluted continentals hardly feel much need to consume doubtful British beef; but traditionally Tory British beef producers need continental appetites - more than they need the Tories' current efforts in Brussels bashing. As a national election is coming up in the UK, there is no need for a referendum on this question.

Cheap Channel Thrills, London to Paris

Eurostar (17k) It looks like a fare-war is going to break out on the heavily-travelled Paris-London route this summer. Richard Branson, head of Virgin, has taken control of London and Continental Railways, operator of the Eurostar train that uses the money-losing Eurotunnel. He will soon announce a new fare schedule and other assorted rassmatazz that promises to have the ferry operators biting their fingernails.
At the end of June, a student will pay 49 pounds - under 400 francs - for a round-trip, downtown London to downtown Paris. The price for an adult couple will be slightly more than double at 99 pounds - about 800 francs. Fares to other destinations will also be lowered, and a family ticket for four to Disneyland Paris will be proposed for 1600 francs - 30 to 60 pounds less than now.

For business travellers, new trains will be added to the schedule - to make it possible to arrive in Paris just before 10:00 - in time for meetings. A deal is in the works for combo Eurostar-Midland Airways fares, allowing one leg of the journey to be by air.

The ferry operator, Stena Line, has promised to match the lowest fares - but alltogether, there is a great deal of over-capacity available. A Stena spokesman pointed out that Eurotunnel is currently losing US$3 million a day. Eurotunnel countered by suggesting it will run 800 metre-long trains, each capable of carrying 150 cars, as often as every 15 minutes.

All of this is good news for travellers, while it lasts. It is even better news for small investors in Eurotunnel, many of whom have already lost their shirts - on paper.

Held Over - Silly Europe Week

The reason that you are not supposed to flog dead horses is because it is tasteless to do so. The same cannot be said for 'Silly Europe Week,' which has now entered its third month.

In return for the refusal to lighten the European Community embargo on the import of British beef, the British government has decided vote against the passage of all European Council decisions which require unanimous approval in Brussels. The first casualty is the community-wide bankruptcy convention, which was to be approved Thursday. Britain has also threatened to sidetrack all discussions unrelated to beef.

Before the ban can be lifted, the European Agricultural Commission wants 'careful scientific evaluation' of the situation, plus 'firm guarantees' from Britain - to be verified, by Community experts, that all necessary measures have been undertaken in order to eliminate risk to consumers.

By week's end, the British government had carried out its threat - to the delight of the popular press and Tory pollsters, doing some short-term thinking ahead to the next elections. British farmers were not so happy, noting that the British beef herd slaughter scheme was now in operation, but later and at a slower rate than planned.

'Mad Cows' in France

On Tuesday, Le Parisien had a long feature, saying that from 1992 to 1995, 182 cases of 'Creuzfeldt-Jakob' disease have been detected in France. The National Health Institute (INSERM) has all the cases noted, on a map of the country - and can not figure out why there are some cases in a region, and none in another with a similar population density.

In 84 percent of the cases, the cause of the disease was unknown. As with older cows, 147 of the cases involved people over 50. There has been only one case in France, that resembles a possible transmission of the disease between a cow and a human being. There is currently no way to diagnose the disease before the first symptoms, and there is no cure for it once symptoms do appear.

Since the first 'Mad Cow' scare six years ago, France has imposed strict regulations on the beef business - that effectively follow a cow from birth to death - and if government vets find one cow in a herd with the symptoms, then the entire herd is destroyed.

Libération Has Rosy Glow!

Friday's edition of Libération is a must-read for me - on account of its weekly Multimedia section -www.liberation.fr - but I was slightly bemused yesterday to read on the front page, an apology for the late appearance of an important news story - due to special production measures, long ago undertaken - to print in yesterday's editions, a fragrance - on the day of its French launch.

When I read it I thought, am I 'getting' this right? and then, well, emm, so what? So I started leafing through the paper until I came to page nine, which has a half-page ad for the new men's eau de toilette, and I gave it a sniff. Hey! There's something here more than 100 percent newsprint! Today, the smell of Libération is filling the editorial office of Metropole. This is such a good thing, Libération should do it every day, and all other newspapers too. We are going to have a hard time getting Metropole to smell this nice, if at all, but I will talk to our technical department about it.

Another SNCF Tunnel Story

I was dozily catching up with the morning's Le Parisien on the train home from Music CD research late Wednesday afternoon, when the train stopped in a tunnel. Just before, I heard what sounded like metal sticks hitting the roof. There was the noise, then the train stopped; stopped abruptly, but not like a pedal-to-the-floor emergency.

We waited in darkness and listened to a somewhat flustered announcement, then another one and after about ten minutes we were invited to get off the train on the left side - No! - the right side, and walk to the station.

It was about a metre drop to the new and very rough ballast - bad for high heels, impossible for bare feet and a bit high for short passengers. About a quarter of the driver's wagon was poking out of the tunnel as we emerged into the rain and the short walk to the next station. Two police officers headed towards the tunnel as we reached the station, where all the passengers gathered under the awnings of the opposing platforms.

Eventually we were told to assemble on the Paris-direction platform and when I crossed over I saw a fire brigade ambulance behind the station. An empty train eventually came and we continued our journey. The passengers on the train five minutes behind ours had to go back and continue on buses.

In a tiny note, Thursday morning's Le Parisien said that the train had 'caught' a person, for some undetermined reason.

Due to being in the first or second wagon and due to the number of passengers staggering in the darkness on the rough ballast, I saw nothing like this - but I heard all about it in the village supermarket yesterday.

I don't know; I didn't see any particular urgency on the part of the police or the firemen. I think it was an 'undetermined reason' - maybe the expandable contact gizmo, joining train to the overhead wire, fell apart. On the other hand, the driver did not want us to get out of the left side of the train - the side by the tunnel wall.


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