Alighting at Marseille’s Saint-Charles railway station on a balmy August evening, a colleague and I made our way to the head of the grand stone staircase which sweeps leisurely down to street level. As we paused momentarily to appreciate the sprawling city beneath us, I cast my mind back to earlier in the day – 7.15am, in fact – when I had left another major city back in the UK, Manchester, then still shrouded in gloom.
Perhaps more importantly than where we had ended up was the way in which we had arrived: not by some ubiquitous budget airline with tedious transfers and a cosy cabin, but by train – station to station, city centre to city centre. What had started out as a rail journey of stop/start frustration between Manchester and London had ended with an easy saunter through the French countryside aboard one of SNCF’s revered Train Grand Vitesse (TGV) services.
Sat in the bar carriage, amid the convivial conversation of my fellow passengers, I soon shrugged off the day’s earlier stresses and gazed contentedly at the speeding scenery, safe in the knowledge that with each passing minute the mercury outside would continue to rise.
The chance to bask in a little Mediterranean sun was just a bonus. The real reason behind my foray south was the compulsion to test a few theories – theories concerning both Manchester and Marseille, arguably the emerging second cities of their respective countries, and the means by which they may soon be connected via a High Speed Rail line.