WITH its long-term track access agreement approved by French rail regulator ART on May 22, the next milestone for Kevin Speed will be to achieve financial close on raising a further €1.2bn in debt and equity in order to meet the significant long-term investment requirements of entering the high-speed sector.

Nomura and Santander CIB were charged with this task after Kevin Speed signed the 10-year framework track access agreement with infrastructure manager SNCF Network on February 29, guaranteeing paths for its Ilisto commuter services on the high-speed lines from Paris to Lille, Strasbourg and Lyon.

By providing long-term visibility on access to the network, the framework agreement opens the door to private capital and, for Kevin Speed chairman, Mr Laurent Fourtune, provides solid foundations for building the rest of the project.

These foundations were further strengthened in April when the Grand Est, Hauts-de-France, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes regions confirmed they would not refer the new Ilisto services to ART on the grounds that they would compete with the conventional regional services that they fund and procure under Public Service Obligation (PSO) contracts. By tapping a currently underserved market, Kevin Speed believes that its Ilisto services will complement rather than compete with the TER network of regional services.

Once the latest funding is in place, Fourtune says that Kevin Speed will place a firm order for 20 seven-car trains from Alstom. They will be single-deck, each seating up to 760 passengers and featuring distributed traction equipment. This marks a radical departure from the double-deck high-speed trains ordered by French National Railways (SNCF) in recent years, including the latest TGV M, which retain the traditional TGV format of articulated coaches and traction equipment located in self-contained power cars at each end of the train.

“When you call at all stations you need distributed traction,” Fourtune says, as he believes this will be better at providing the high rates of acceleration and efficient regenerative braking required for starting and stopping more frequently. To reduce station dwell times, each coach will have two doors per side. This is again a departure from established SNCF practice, but a feature of some Japanese Shinkansen designs, as well as the Hitachi class 395 Javelin trains that operate commuter services between London and Kent on High Speed 1 in Britain.

The new fleet will be maintained, potentially with the involvement of the manufacturer, at three new depots that Kevin Speed is planning to build halfway along each of the three high-speed lines that Ilisto will serve. Fourtune says they will be more like roadside service stations, or even motor racing-style pit stops - “but not as fast” - than traditional rolling stock maintenance depots, inspired by the maintenance bases established by low-cost airlines close to where revenue operations take place. Locating these new facilities and crew depots at the midpoint of the line avoids the cost of city-centre sites and should prove attractive to staff, Fourtune believes. “You’re always back home at the end of your shift,” he says. “That makes a difference for drivers.” As well as reducing staff turnover, Kevin Speed also hopes that this will help to achieve its objective of women making up 50% of the 150 drivers that it will eventually need.

The total staff complement will be 450. On-train staff will not be selling drinks and snacks to passengers, however, as there will be no onboard catering on the single-class Ilisto trains. “Keep it simple, keep it on time,” Fourtune says, pointing out that trains are often delayed by waiting for catering trollies or supplies to be loaded.

And there will be no staffed Ilisto ticket offices at stations. “That is so 20th century,” Fourtune says. Ticketing will be “almost 100% digital,” with limited facilities for staff to issue tickets on the platform in the event of an emergency.

Fares will be yield-managed and priced according to demand, and are likely to start at €5 for an off-peak single journey from Paris to Lille. Regular commuters will be rewarded for their loyalty, the total price for the number of journeys made within a specific period of time will be capped, replicating what some urban transport operators do on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. “The more you travel, the less you pay,” Fourtune says.

Kevin Speed hopes to start testing its new fleet on the network in 2026, and carry its first passengers in 2028. Service levels will ramp up over a three-year period, after which Fourtune expects there will be one Ilisto service an hour in each direction, operating at up to 300km/h.

Precise timings are subject to agreement with SNCF Network, but Fourtune expects that services will run roughly from 06.00 to 22.00 every day.

By calling at all intermediate stations that at present often have a limited SNCF Voyageurs service to Paris, and at a frequency that is once again counter to customary practice on the French high-speed network, Fourtune expects the new Ilisto services to have high occupancy rates. Once the full timetable is in place, there will be 10,000 trains a year offering a total of 7.6 million seats. Even if every train is full, “this is still a very small amount compared with the 140 million passengers a year at SNCF,” he says. “We are trying to add something new to the system in France, to complement SNCF Voyageurs.”

“Open access is the future,” Fourtune says. “We believe that PSO comes with too many strings attached. You cannot invest, you cannot improve the system.” By introducing new thinking and new technology, open access delivers “better outcomes for the customer and the government,” he says.

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