IN December 2012 TGV Lyria took a step in a new direction by introducing a TGV service that does not serve Paris but instead runs cross-country between Geneva and the Mediterranean coast.

The timing was particularly appropriate as Marseille, which along with Nice and Montpellier is one of the three destinations on the route, is hosting a number of events as this year's European Capital City of Culture. It is also France's biggest port and its second largest city.

Lyria reported a turnover of e320m in 2012, and its core services, which carried 5.4 million passengers in the last year, including 2.7 million internationally, run from Paris to Zurich, Lausanne and Geneva. For its new service it offers two trains a day in each direction between Geneva and Marseille, one of which continues to Nice, and a daily service between Geneva and Montpellier. And as Mr Alain Barbey, director general of TGV Lyria, explains, while all Lyria services are international, on this new mostly French route, the clientele is rather different.

"We have more domestic traffic especially between Lyon and Marseille," he says, adding that the company is still identifying the optimal timings for the new service. "We've found the first train leaving Geneva at 06.32 is too early, so next year we plan to shift departure time to 08.30 or so. But we'll keep the second departure at 12.42."

A-Barbey TLWWith its headquarters in Paris, TGV Lyria is a joint venture between French National Railways (SNCF) which holds a 74% stake, and Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) which holds 26%. In the last three years, the upgrade of the 65km Haut-Bugey line between Bourg-en-Bresse and Bellegarde, and the completion of the Rhine-Rhône high-speed line have both increased capacity and cut journey times. They have also resulted in a sharp increase in passenger numbers. "In the last three years, we've seen an increase of 34% in total passenger figures, and last year alone, the increase was 36% on the route to Basle and Zurich thanks to the opening of the new LGV Rhine-Rhône which reduced the journey time by 30 minutes," Barbey says. "In fact we've been very lucky, as we don't usually increase services that quickly."

New concepts

At present Lyria runs 23 return trains a day, and is trying out new concepts in an effort to boost the attractiveness of its offerings. This includes a winter service for skiers between Lille and Brig introduced last year in partnership with Eurostar. Barbey says that with Eurostar serving Brussels and London from Lille, there was a big catchment for potential customers. "It was a test platform, with only one train at weekends, so we didn't do a lot of promotion," he says. "The train was overcrowded during the holiday periods, and we were very satisfied with the result, as was Eurostar. Next winter we'll renew the operation, focusing on peak times."

Other potential new services include trains operating several times a week between Lille and Geneva, a concept that is currently under consideration, with a view to starting in 2015, and offering the same connection but with a stop in Marne la Vallee to serve Disneyland Paris from Switzerland, the third most important market for the theme park. Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris is another prospective destination.

"Our aim is to develop these services in cooperation with partners," Barbey says. "But our focus at the moment is to improve current services. We've found a high rate of customer satisfaction for our services; passengers take the comfort, the meals and power sockets for granted. And every time we add a new service we introduce a new customer-oriented culture. This is now our policy, adapting to the passengers."

As for rolling stock, the operator's four remaining TGV Sud-Est trains will be phased out in December in favour of increasing use of 19 newer TGV POS trains, which are undergoing interior refurbishment with branding in Lyria colours, and four TGV Duplex trains which are on lease. "The idea is to use the trains as much as possible, increasing services by optimisation, which also means optimising maintenance operations."

While all appears rosy for TGV Lyria, local press reports have suggested that the Berne - Paris TGV service might cease in the near future as passenger figures fall. Barbey admits that this is a possibility because at present the numbers do not add up.

"People who want to travel from Berne to Paris usually go via Basle because it's faster and the service is more frequent at six times a day," he says. "The problem probably lies not so much with Berne but with Neuchâtel. Traffic has fallen by 30% and we're losing €2.5m a year on this route. Whether it's discontinued is something that has to be decided at a higher level, by SNCF and SBB together. We expect a decision this summer."

Lyria is clearly willing to grow its services in areas where it feels there is sufficient traffic and cut back where it deems demand no longer exists. Expanding its service to the Mediterranean coast, leaving its traditional Paris hub behind, inevitably poses the question of whether Spanish passengers might be next to benefit from Lyria's services. However, Barbey admits that this is not yet on the company's radar and he is happy to focus on the potential growth areas already identified. "We have no plans for Spain," he says. "I know such a service has been proposed, but not through us."