MAJOR changes are afoot in the way SNCF operates its railfreight business in an attempt to get it on a sounder financial footing. Azema (right) says that logistics now handled by the SNCF Geodis organisation is the basis for new thinking about railfreight. Fret SNCF accounts for around 20% of SNCF Geodis' turnover, which in turn is about 25% of SNCF's overall turnover (up to the end of June 2009). He says new solutions for railfreight need to be seen in the wider logistics context rather than a narrow one simply focused on traditional railfreight.

Typical of the thinking planned to transform the fortunes of the railfreight part of SNCF Geodis are increased combined and container transport, the development of Autoroute Ferroviaire piggyback services, and, in the future, the Carex inter-airport high-speed freight project.
However, Azema is keen to stress that Fret SNCF is not exiting wagonload freight, especially at a time when German Rail's DB Schenker subsidiary is talking about expanding wagonload services. Azema says SNCF will continue to offer a single wagonload service to those customers willing to pay what the service costs to operate.

The introduction of US-style "shortline" operators is seen as a key part of the plan to improve the viability of wagonload traffic. Once established, these new operators will take over the operation of short feeder freight services. The first shortline operators are expected to start in some regions of France and in the ports of Le Havre and La Rochelle within the next few months.

Turning to high-speed, the fleet of 35 international high-speed trains, which SNCF is currently out to tender for, will be used mainly on cross-border routes from 2015. As such services will appeal to a different customer base from domestic services, SNCF believes they offer higher growth potential, and will in many cases increase rail's market share rather than simply abstracting traffic from existing competing services. Azema cites Eurostar and Thalys as examples of new services on new infrastructure that have transformed markets.

However, competition works both ways, and SNCF's Italian neighbour Trenitalia has already applied for paths to run services from Italy to France. Azema says he expects Trenitalia will want to run its high-speed services to Paris but so far it has not requested access to stations or depots. "We wait for them openly," he says.

The change of mindset required by liberalised passenger operation will impact incumbent operators. Azema describes it as a change of habits, rules and accounting covering those activities such as stations, depots and train control facilities, which are accessible to all operators without discrimination. Regarding the imminent transformation of Eurostar from a multi-national joint venture organisation into a single company owned by the existing partners, Azema says he is pleased but also a little surprised that Eurostar is the first of the multi-national joint ventures to become a separate entity.

Having been involved in Eurostar in its formative years, Azema assumed that Thalys would make the step to independent operator before Eurostar. The reason this has not happened is because Thalys' shareholders don't believe that incorporation makes the best sense at the moment.

I asked Azema if DB is the stumbling block. He says cooperation with DB works well both in Thalys and Alleo, the jointly-owned company which operates TGV/ICE services from Paris to Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Munich. He expects this cooperation to continue, particularly when the Rhine-Rhône high-speed line opens at the end of 2011.

SNCF is keen to sell its high-speed expertise abroad. Azema says SNCF wants to work as a partner with public authorities developing high-speed projects and potentially within consortia bidding for such projects. SNCF is open to some revenue and cost risk, but is not interested in funding entire projects. Azema describes SNCF's strength as "its ability to package the whole project but not to fund entire projects."

He says SNCF can provide practical help such as ensuring depots are located in the right place, and using proven construction techniques, as happened in Britain when French high-speed standards were adopted for HS1. Azema says such advice will help to ensure that construction and operating costs are minimised and return on investment is maximised.

Azema says SNCF has the expertise to calculate the maximum revenue for given distances, the population served, and planned journey times and train frequencies. He believes that SNCF's commercial approach to yield management combined with proven technology is what makes France's TGV so successful.