PRIVATELY-funded new entrant Proxima has confirmed plans to introduce open-access high-speed services from Paris to the west of France using a fleet of 12 high-speed trains supplied by Alstom.

Proxima is seeking to introduce three separate services: a direct high-speed connection between Paris Montparnasse and Bordeaux; a similar non-stop service between Paris Montparnasse and Rennes; and a Paris Montparnasse - Angers - Nantes service, which will use the conventional line from Sablé-sur-Sarthe, 53km north of Angers. The goal is to begin operating in early 2028.

Speaking to IRJ, co-founder, Mr Tim Jackson, says France’s position as Europe’s largest high-speed market is driving Proxima’s entry into the market. Combined with high-quality infrastructure, and a severe lack of train capacity - load factors on some French National Railways (SNCF) services are more than 95% - Jackson says there is a significant opportunity for new entrants.

“We will be using private capital to boost the supply side of the French high-speed rail market,” Jackson says. “It is a new offering, which will be neither low-cost or upmarket, but focused more on behavioural changes, such as young people who want greener travel, or teleworkers who are split between two bases.”

There are no details yet of the number of high-speed services that Proxima plans to operate a day, although it is aiming to offer more than 10 million extra seats per year. Jackson says the operator is in discussions with SNCF Network over a “very detailed operating schedule,” that will not impact existing operators. However, it is too early for the operator to purchase these paths outright.

Proxima is backed financially by Antin Infrastructure Partners, an investment company based in Paris, that has committed €1bn to Proxima from its €10bn Flagship 5 Fund. Antin has €31bn of assets under management. In the rail sector this includes investments and shareholdings in British rolling stock leasing company Porterbrook, German wagon lessor European Rail Rent (ERR), Grande Stazioni Retail, which manages 14 major stations across Italy, and Lake State Railway, a shortline in Michigan, United States.

Jackson says Antin’s funding along with debt financing from a pool of French and international banks will support the development of the company’s first phase. This includes operational launch costs and working capital requirements as well as the procurement and maintenance of the new fleet, which Proxima will own outright.

Jackson says that the financing “will take us all the way through until the business is self-funding,” emphasising that this is not seed funding and there will be no subsequent financing rounds. “This is it, it is one shot and everything we need,” he says.

“It has been a long haul to get here because they are very thorough, but that is OK,” Jackson continues. “It gives us great confidence that this isn’t our pipe dream, it has been endorsed by a major investor who is backing it all the way.”

Alstom confirmed that it has entered exclusive negotiations to supply Proxima with 12 Avelia Horizon double-deck high-speed trains with options for further trains as required. Jackson says that the trains will look identical to SNCF’s new TGV M fleet, its version of the Avelia Horizon, although there will be some minor modifications to suit Proxima’s needs, such as the interior layout.

“We looked at several very good European train manufacturers’ products,” Jackson says. “But I think coming in with a non-French train that would require certification in France would add a level of complexity. We are trying to derisk the launch.”

The first of the trains are expected to start dynamic testing in 2027, with operation commencing “six months after that,” according to Jackson.

The fleet will be maintained at a new depot owned by Lisea, the concessionaire and owner of the Tours - Bordeaux high-speed line. Jackson says Proxima and Alstom are working with Lisea to modify the facility to meet the needs of the Avelia fleet.

Proxima’s close relationship with Lisea partly drove the decision to target the three western French routes. Jackson adds that Paris, Bordeaux and Rennes are also attractive because they are three of the seven largest conurbations in France. “They’re all routes of 1h 30min to 2h 05min,” he says. “This is absolutely the sweet spot for high-speed rail.”

Jackson’s fellow co-founder for the project is Ms Rachel Picard, a former CEO of SNCF Voyages and SNCF Gares & Connexions, who is credited for establishing the InOui and Ouigo brands. She also led the launch of the voyages-sncf.com distribution platform, and is described as “highly experienced in the French rail sector in operations, customer service and marketing.”

Jackson has a background in finance, asset management and rolling stock leasing. He is the founder of European leasing company Alpha Trains and also led RATP’s activities in Britain and South Africa.

He reveals that work on Proxima began two or three years ago, and describes the journey to get to this point as a “very long story.” However, he says his and Picard’s complementary experience and enthusiasm for the project have helped to progress it to its current point.

The focus for now remains on the first phase of the project and starting operations as planned. However, with options for more trains included in its agreement with Alstom, there is potential to expand the business. Could this mean further routes in France, or even cross-border operations?

“We’re not ruling anything out,” Jackson says.