FRANCE's shrinking and struggling network of conventional long-distance services has been under the political spotlight for some time, but efforts to stem the decline have so far failed to yield positive results.
In December 2010, the French government signed an agreement with French National Railways (SNCF) to revitalise the so-called balance of territory (TET) trains, a network of 40 loss-making long-distance services which serves 355 towns and cities across 21 regions, carrying around 100,000 passengers per day.
The TET network serves a number of diverse markets:
- lines in the Paris basin serving commuters travelling into the capital (eg Paris - Rouen - Le Havre)
- radial long-distance services primarily targeting the leisure market (eg Paris - Clermont-Ferrand)
- long-distance cross-country (eg Nantes - Lyon)
- inter-regional short-distance (eg Caen - Tours), and
- overnight trains.
There was positive news in 2013, when SNCF ordered 34 bi-mode Coradia Liner trains from Alstom in a €346m deal to provide new trains for selected radial and cross-country routes from 2017. But the 2010 agreement has failed to halt the decline; operating losses have increased from €210m to €312m over the last three years and 10% of TET services have been withdrawn since the accord was signed.
Last November transport minister Mr Alain Vidalies announced that the government would take a new direction, forming a commission of politicians and industry experts chaired by member of parliament for Calvados Mr Philippe Duron to develop a strategy for reviving the network. The commission published its initial report on May 26, recommending significant changes to the organisation and operation of the network.
"Two words neatly sum up the views of passengers on TET services: attachment and exasperation," Duron says. "Attachment to the public train service that guarantees everyone can move conveniently throughout the country in safe and comfortable conditions at an affordable price, and exasperation with a service that has been deteriorating for more than 20 years, both in terms of equipment and service."
The report argues that TET services need to be completely redefined to meet the needs of modern passengers. Obsolete rolling stock and decaying infrastructure mean punctuality is poor and operating costs are high, while frequencies on many routes do not adequately meet the needs of the market. Any further increases in costs will make the TET network completely unsustainable, it suggests. The commission is therefore committed to a detailed line-by-line analysis of the TET routes.
The report also recommends that a TET leadership council should be set up to administer the network and suggests that efforts to enhance services should focus on those lines with the strongest potential for revenue growth.
Three routes are identified in the report as under-utilised, but with potential for expansion:
- Paris - Clermont-Ferrand
- Paris - Orléans - Tours, and
- Nantes - Lyon
The commission recommends maintaining or increasing current service levels on a further seven routes:
- Paris - Limoges
- Paris - Caen
- Bordeaux - Marseilles
- Paris - Amiens
- Paris - Bourges
- Paris - Saint-Quentin, and
- Bordeaux - Nantes
On routes with lower traffic density, the commission recommends reviewing operations and adjusting service levels to reflect demand. These include:
- Paris - Rouen - Le Havre
- Caen - Cherbourg
- Paris - Granville
- Amiens - Boulogne (part of Paris - Amiens - Boulogne)
- Saint-Quentin - Maubeuge (part of Paris - Maubeuge)
- Limoges - Brive-la-Gaillarde (part of Paris - Limoges), and
- Troyes - Belfort (part of Paris - Belfort)
TET services on the following lines are recommended for withdrawal:
- Toulouse - Cerbère
- Saint-Quentin - Cambrai
- Quimper - Nantes and Bordeaux - Toulouse (part of Quimper - Toulouse), and
- Marseilles - Nice (part of Bordeaux - Nice)
Under the proposals three lines including Caen - Le Mans - Tours, Hirson - Metz, and Reims - Dijon would transfer to regional control, becoming TER services, while Toulouse - Hendaye and Clermont-Ferrand - Béziers services would be replaced by buses.
The report suggests that the opening of the market to competition would be a real opportunity to establish a viable business model for the TET network. The commission therefore proposes that the monopoly of SNCF Mobilités should be tentatively lifted on certain routes, although any moves towards competitive tendering will not take place until at least the end of 2016.
The National Federation of Public Transport Associations (FNAUT) welcomed many of the findings of the report, but argues that the proposals do not go far enough. "The Duron commission wisely rejected the regressive scenario defended by SNCF, which totally ignores the needs of travellers," the association said in a statement. "The commission accepted that Intercity trains are essential to ensure services to medium-sized cities and on cross-country routes."
FNAUT is disappointed that the commission has not recommended the reconstruction of a truly national Intercity network, pointing to German Rail's recently-announced strategy to develop its long-distance network in the face of intensifying competition from buses (IRJ April p8).
A week before the publication of the Duron report the Association of French Regions (ARF) and the Federation of French Towns warned that more than half of TET services could be lost if the French government fails to act decisively to secure their future.
The two associations say they are concerned that the state and SNCF view the TETs in purely financial terms and warn that this could lead to the loss of vital social and economic links between regional towns and cities.
"The existence and survival of the TET trains is extremely important to our towns and cities, and helps to prevent economic decline in the regions," says Mrs Caroline Cayeux, mayor of Beauvais and president of the Federation of French Towns.
The associations are urging the government to bring forward the concesssioning of public service obligation inter-regional services to enable private operators to enter the market. Mr Jacques Auxiette, regional council president for the Pays de la Loire region, says regional governments are willing to consider the transfer of some routes to the regions, "subject to adequate financial compensation" from the state.
An added complication for the future of TET is that the French government is determined to liberalise the long-distance bus market. A bill for growth and equal economic opportunities - dubbed Macron's Law after the economy minister Mr Emmanuel Macron - is currently making its way through parliament and includes provisions for deregulating the bus industry and opening the market for bus services covering distances of 100km or more.
Duron stresses that this adds to the imperative for action on long-distance rail services. "In the future rail will be up against more flexible and less expensive mobility offers such as long-distance buses or carpooling which, as we have seen in Britain and Germany, will seduce travellers," he says.
Speaking in the National Assembly last month, Macron seemed to suggest that the bus has the edge when it comes to restoring lost inter-regional connectivity, a view that does not auger well for TET services. "At present many French people cannot afford to take the train, and the bus is 8-10 times cheaper," he says. "The liberalisation of bus services will particularly benefit those on low incomes."
There is a perfectly reasonable argument that conventional long-distance rail services and a liberalised long-distance bus sector should co-exist, and one should not be considered an alternative to the other. Duron stresses that the decline of TET is not inevitable, and if France can emulate the "courageous reforms" seen elsewhere in Europe, he is confident the network can return to growth. But if market forces are left to decide the destiny of TET, a commitment to greater operational flexibility, investment in modern equipment, and innovative approaches to customer service will be needed - and needed soon - to ensure the long-term survival of the network.
Photo: David Gubler