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Transport supporters For some lucky supporters this year's World Cup will be a dream come true. But it is also likely to be one hell of a ride, says Matthew Jones.

Given England's lacklustre form so far in the pre-World Cup friendly games, it looks unlikely that the team will be setting the pitch alight later this month with silky skills and spectacular goals.

But just suppose the unthinkable happens - England get that dream ticket through to the final at the Stade de France on 12 July?

By that time any fan passionate (and rich) enough to have followed the team on its trail to glory will have endured a gruelling 32.5 hours of train travel and criss-crossed France five times.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the French had drawn up the France 98 fixture list with an eye on wiping out SNCF's long running losses. Most teams have to switch venues for nearly every game, so their supporters are faced with the prospect of travelling the length and breadth of the country if they want to see their idols every time they play.

While an England victory is a fanciful hypothesis, (although as Jimmy Greaves once said, it's a funny old game), it does at least illustrate the awesome logistics facing France's transport operators during the competition. Hundreds of thousands of supporters from the 32 qualifying teams will have to be ferried between 10 cities to see 64 matches. And then, of course, there's the aprs match...

Realising this challenge, national rail operator SNCF, Air France and Paris' transport operator RATP were all quick to become official partners of the World Cup organising committee. The deal allows them to sport the competition's logo and exploit the massive publicity surrounding the event.

But as SNCF communications officer Philippe Mirville explains, the cost of upgrading services to cope with the extra demand falls entirely with the organisations themselves.

'We don't get any kind of grant, but we would hope to make most of the money we have spent back from the extra passengers,' he says.

The company estimates that it will spend £4M to 5M to provide an extra 400 special World Cup trains - half of which will be high speed night- time TGV train services to allow supporters to travel after matches. And more than 1,000 groups have already booked their seats, two thirds of which are French supporters. More than 11,000 Japanese will also travel to Toulouse and Nantes, and 10,000 plus Brazilians have already booked their seats.

To cope with this demand, SNCF has put together a World Cup plan in which workshops will minimise the turn-around times for cleaning and maintaining trains. Engineering and maintenance works on the track itself will be suspended during the competition due to the extra night trains. 'This is not really a problem, we will just re-start in July,' says Mirville.

Regional transport services will have also been strengthened, with free shuttle buses from the stations to the matches for ticket holders in Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille and Montpellier. In Lyon and Saint-Etienne the regional council will be putting on an extra 45 local trains, while in Lens the council has prepared a transport and infrastructure plan and is granting a 50% discount on local train services.

For those travelling by car to Nantes, toll road operator Cofiroute has installed a series of electronic gantries giving information on the best routes for supporters and parking availability. These signs will also carry sport questions for a phone-in quiz which will take place throughout the competition.

But it is in Paris that the worst logistical headaches are likely to occur. While supporters, observers and a large proportion of the world's media descends, the capital must also continue to act as the transport hub for the rest of France.

Since Paris' Stade de France opened in January this year, transport operator RATP has been working to ensure that its stations will be able to cope with demand. It has organised a £140M spend on transport infrastructure improvements in the Saint-Denis area, financed partly by the regional council, the government and state-owned companies.

The largest part of these works has been a £52M extension of metro line 13, opened last month, and construction of a new bus station at Saint- Denis-Universit. The line will carry 15 extra trains on match days at two minute headways, giving a capacity of 15,000 passengers an hour.

Elsewhere, on RER regional railway line D, a new station was constructed 1km from the Stade de France with three platforms specially adapted to cope with high volume use. On RER line B, which links the stadium directly to the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport, the existing La Plaine-Voyageurs station has been completely re-modelled, re-built closer to the stadium and re-named La Plaine-Stade de France.

The closest station to the new stadium is Porte de Paris, and this too has undergone a complete revamp for the World Cup to increase capacity by 30%. The ticket concourse has been doubled in size, there are six new staircases and two new escalators. A new exit has also been created 400m away from the stadium.

For those wishing to travel to the Stade de France by road, 17 park and ride car parks have been set up with discount rates for supporters. Bus services to the area around Parc des Princes in the western suburbs will be stepped up with buses every four minutes on match days.

But with so many different nationalities, it is hard to imagine that confusion will not reign. To try and combat language difficulties and keep people heading in the right direction, SNCF is installing multi-lingual signs. RATP is going one step further by employing 500 people specially selected for their linguistic abilities.

However, regardless of the huge amount of time, effort and cash which will go into the planning, transport in France during the tournament is still bound to be hectic. But then if one of our teams wins this year, British fans are hardly likely to complain.

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