In recent years there has been a growing chorus of discontent among regional politicians over the quality of services being provided by French National Railways (SNCF). While regions have become the organising authorities for regional train services, they have no option but to spend their money with SNCF. Many look longingly to Germany, where tendering of public service obligation (PSO) services has largely resulted in improved punctuality, a renewed focus on costs, quality enhancements, greater flexibility, and ridership growth.


In France, the number of TER services increased by 21% between 2002 and 2014 while ridership rose by 49%, but the costs incurred by the regions increased by 102%. Furthermore ridership appears to have peaked - between 2012 and 2015 passenger numbers fell by 4.4% and fares revenues are covering just 26% of operating costs. SNCF calculates that if this trend continues, TER traffic will have declined by 7% by 2020 with the regions facing a 23% hike in costs.

FranceSNCF is responding to this crisis with its “Cap TER 2020” plan, which was unveiled last December. The strategy aims to offer “the right product at the right price at the right time,” drawing on best practices identified in each of the 11 TER regions and applying them across the whole of France. Services will be “reconfigured to meet local needs” and divided into different operating concepts: “Chrono” for fast connections between regional hubs and “Proxi” for local services. If successful, SNCF estimates the strategy could yield 5-10% ridership growth by 2020.

However, with the approval of the market pillar of the Fourth Railway Package by the European Parliament, competitive tendering of PSO services has moved a major step closer.

In June 2016 French prime minister Mr Manuel Valls and Mr Philippe Richert, president of the Regions of France (ARF), made a joint commitment to prepare for market opening in line with EU law. A key aim of this process is to “avoid any sudden development of the sector which might be harmful for all players in the railway system.” The government will therefore present a bill to parliament enabling local experiment in market opening on selected regional routes. If the act is adopted this year, experimental regional tendering could begin next year. The regions are now looking at what arrangements need to be made for the experimental phase.

ARF says market opening would finally make the regions fully-fledged transport authorities, giving them the freedom to set TER fares and select operators other than SNCF.

Regional governments are also taking a more prominent role in inter-city services. Following the completion of a review of the so-called Balance of Territory (TET) loss-making conventional inter-city services last year, the government has begun the process of transferring control of these services to the regions. To incentivise the regions to adopt these services, the government is offering to provide financial support for operations in the phase following the transfer, and €1.5bn in state funding will be made available for new rolling stock between 2017 and 2025.

The first region to adopt TET services was Normandy, which reached an agreement in April on the transfer of services from Paris to Caen, Cherbourg, Le Harve, Granville, Serquigny as well as Caen - Le Mans - Tours services to regional control. A new fleet of 40 Bombardier Omneo Premium double-deck EMUs was ordered in November for these services.

In November the Grand Est region agreed to take control of Reims - Dijon and Hirson - Metz services from January 1 2017, and Paris - Troyes - Belfort services from January 1 2018. The French government has agreed to contribute €13m per year towards the cost of operating Paris - Belfort services and a new fleet of 19 bi-mode Alstom trains will be introduced later this year.

On December 7, French secretary of state for transport Mr Alain Vidalies and Mr Xavier Bertand, president of the region of Hauts-de-France, announced on December 7 that Hauts-de-France will become the organising authority for the operation of Paris - Amiens - Boulogne and Paris - St Quentin - Maubeuge/ Cambrai services with effect from January 1 2019. Under the agreement, the state will fund the acquisition of 10 new Alstom Coradia Liner trains worth €150m, and provide financing for further rolling stock with a value of up to €250m. It will also contribute €15m towards the operation of the services.

In western France, the region of New Aquitaine will become responsible for Bordeaux to La Rochelle, Limoges and Ussel services. The French state will fund the complete renewal of rolling stock on these routes and five new Régiolis trains will enter service no later than June 2019. The state will also contribute towards operating costs.

With a presidential election looming in March, it is difficult to be certain what the future policy direction will be for regional rail. However, the clear commitment to reform TER and take on TET services indicates regional administrations are keen to secure a better future for their rail services.