At a time when the climate emergency is at the heart of all debates, the train is a leading sustainable mode of transport. Its number of users is constantly increasing and many actions are being implemented to encourage the undecided to favour it. However, its sometimes high cost and the closure of many small stations in rural areas do not allow everyone to take full advantage of its services. How can we encourage more and more people to leave their cars behind and take the train? How can we compete with air travel on short and medium journeys? How can we make the train accessible to as many people as possible while maintaining a quality offer? These are all questions to which the transport actors are trying to provide some answers.
A transport mode that is becoming more and more attractive
The year 2022 marks the long-awaited return of tourism activity with an increase in the number of international tourist arrivals according to the UNWTO. This upturn in activity is also benefiting the SNCF, which in a press release dated 30 June explained that it was expecting a record summer in terms of passenger numbers. Although the number of passengers on board the company's trains has not yet been revealed, Laurent Trevisani, SNCF's deputy director general in charge of finance, has revealed the turnover. This figure is €20.3 billion, an increase of 14% compared to 2019, a development that attests to the recovery in tourism but also to the growing appeal of trains as a means of transport to get to one's destination.
Friday 29 July in particular marked a peak in the number of passengers on the company's trains. It was the first day of the famous "chassé-croisé", which marks the transition from July to August. A particularly important weekend for the SNCF, which was expecting up to one million passengers on this day. According to the transport company's figures, the level of bookings for July and August at the end of June was 10% higher than the already record level for 2019.
While tourists make up a significant proportion of train users, business travellers also seem to be making a comeback this year with the recovery of the MICE sector. At Eurostar, business travel now accounts for 70% of 2019 levels, while the number of corporate accounts managed by the company has increased by 40% over the last three years. A similar observation was made by Thalys, "our transport offer has increased month by month to reach its pre-Covid level in April", commented a company spokesperson. However, the results are more nuanced for Lyria, which is still 18% down on 2019 for the first half of the year. Nevertheless, the results seem to have improved since March and augur well for a promising autumn.
The business segment is also of considerable importance to SNCF, with business traffic having recovered well since spring 2022. Although the figures still lag behind those recorded in 2019, SNCF remains optimistic about the coming months. Indeed, business traffic was lagging behind by around 40% at the end of 2021/beginning of 2022 and is now stabilising at around 10%. The growth of bleisure also benefits the rail industry as evidenced by the 45% of Liberté card holders who travelled for business and leisure between March 2021 and March 2022.
However, the problem is that the cost of maintaining the network is proving to be relatively high. Many voices in the sector are therefore being raised to alert us to the urgent need to preserve and maintain an ageing rail network when it should, on the contrary, benefit from massive investment to meet the challenges of regional planning and sustainable development. To this end, Jean-Pierre Farrandou, the Chairman of the SNCF, is asking for 100 billion euros over 15 years for the railways.
Jean Rotter, President of the Grand Est Region and President of the Mobility, Transport and Infrastructure Commission of Régions de France, also supported this urgent need for action. He alerted the Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, to the fact that the "French model has run out of steam". As for Jean-Luc Gibelin, Vice-President in charge of transport and mobility for the Occitanie Region and Renaud Lagrave, Vice-President in charge of transport and mobility for Nouvelle-Aquitaine, they propose to follow the German model. While Germany spends 13 billion euros per year on its network, France only spends 2.7 billion.
Opening up to competition changes the game
Voted in 2018, the Pacte Ferroviaire law officially opened up France to competition, thus putting an end to the SNCF monopoly. Trenitalia, an Italian company as its name suggests, is one of the major actors that recently entered the French rail market. On 18 December 2021, the company launched its high-speed service for the first time in France, on the Paris-Lyon-Turin-Milan line. Three months later, Trenitalia continued to develop its offer and put into circulation a first round trip from Paris Gare de Lyon to Lyon Perrache via Lyon Part-Dieu with the TGV Frecciarossa. Eventually, Trenitalia will offer 5 daily return trips between Paris and Lyon.
To attract more potential passengers, Trenitalia is trying to meet expectations related to cost and flexibility. The company is offering a 50% reduction in the price for children up to 14 years old, free travel for children under 4 years old, and a free and unlimited ticket exchange system until the train leaves. This puts the SNCF offer, which does not offer as many advantages to its users, in the shade.
The Italian company is not alone in wanting to compete with the SNCF's offer. Railcoop's ambition is to open a transverse Bordeaux-Lyon route, with several stops, a line that the SNCF no longer wishes to market itself. As the first rail cooperative in France, Railcoop wants to give new meaning to rail mobility by involving citizens, railway workers, companies and local authorities. This project has a sustainable vocation but also a social one by wanting to offer a rail service adapted to the needs of all territories, particularly in rural areas where the offer is sometimes scarce due to the lack of infrastructure and commercialised lines. Its primary aim is not really to compete with the SNCF but rather to bring life to neglected routes in order to encourage people to take the train instead of their personal vehicles.
While the cooperative has already been running a freight train between Figeac and Toulouse since November 2021, things are not so simple for passenger transport. The Bordeaux-Lyon line should have started operating in June 2022, but last December, Railcoop announced an initial postponement of six months, to December 2022. This postponement was due to SNCF Réseau not being able to provide the necessary train paths. However, the launch of the line has been postponed again due to the delay in finalising the financing plan with the project's banks and investors, as well as a lack of availability of train sets. Railcoop has signed a contract for the sale of eight old TER trains from the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, which are to be renovated. But these trains will not be ready by the end of the year as initially planned. The cooperative has not yet announced a new date for the official launch of its offer.
To face the arrival of these new competitors, SNCF is launching a new offer with attractive prices. Operating on the model of the low-cost TGV Ouigo, these trains will use refreshed and repainted Corail carriages with tickets costing between €10 and €30, with a fixed price for the entire sales period until the train departs. Children will pay €5 regardless of the journey. Called "Ouigo Train Classique", this new offer will offer two daily return trips between Paris-Bercy and Lyon-Perrache, which will take between 4 hours 45 and 5 hours 15 minutes. It will take between 3.5 and 4.15 hours to get from Paris-Austerlitz to Nantes, with three return trips per day. Like its predecessor Ouigo, extra luggage and bicycles will be subject to an additional charge of between 5 and 10 euros. This new service will be operated by the company Oslo (an acronym for "Offre de services librement organisés"), a subsidiary of SNCF Voyageurs.
However, this opening up to competition allows the SNCF to consider development prospects outside France. In March 2021, the SNCF launched its low-cost Ouigo TGV service in Spain on the Madrid-Barcelona route, also serving Zaragoza and Tarragona. This network will be extended from 7 October to the Madrid-Valencia route, pending its extension to Seville and Malaga in 2023. But here again, the French company will have to face new competitors with the upcoming arrival of Trenitalia via its company iryo. Indeed, the Italian company is due to arrive on the Spanish market on 25 November, initially operating on the same routes as Ouigo. The aim is to move on to the Basque Country and Galicia before a potential extension to international routes, with iryo supporting the creation of a high-speed line between Madrid and Lisbon, for example.
The rail sector is constantly innovating
One of the major problems of the French railway sector is the desertification of small rural lines, which have been abandoned for lack of profitability. A consortium led by the SNCF, which includes the Alsatian company Lohr, is seeking to rehabilitate these famous lines by designing a new kind of light train. Named Draisy, this bus-sized vehicle with rapidly rechargeable batteries can run on non-electrified tracks. A real revolution in the world of trains. This project was selected in March 2022 as part of the call for expressions of interest (AMI) on the digitalisation and decarbonisation of rail transport. The vehicle, which can accommodate 80 people, including 30 seated, is expected to be launched in 2026. Discussions are underway with several regions to identify a pilot line. It will be chosen by 2023 for a trial probably in 2025. The overall cost of the project is €30 million, of which €14 million will be financed by the SNCF and €11 million by Lohr, with the remaining 40% to be covered by the Ademe. In total, 80 regional train lines have been identified as eligible for the project, with a potential of 80,000 passengers per day.
For its part, the European Commission wishes to tackle cross-border mobility by developing a trans-European high-speed network. With the objective of doubling high-speed rail traffic by 2030 and tripling it by 2050, the length of the current high-speed network, which stands at 11,526 km, must be increased by at least 75%. It is clear that the current high-speed rail network consists mainly of "national high-speed islands" in almost half of the European countries. A major project is the creation of a high-speed rail network in the heart of Central Europe, which is in dire need of modernisation. Among the main infrastructure projects approved, notably by the Czech Republic, are two major axes in Central Europe. The first is to link Berlin-Dresden-Prague-Brno-Vienna and Budapest, while the second would run from Vienna and Budapest to Bratislava-Brno-Ostrava-Katowice-Warsaw. Thanks to the "Via Vindobona" and the Rail Baltica project, these future high-speed links will also connect to the rest of Europe.
High-speed rail represents the future of travel in Europe. That is why the development of high-speed lines is one of our main transport priorities during the Czech Presidency of the Council of the European Union. We must overcome the "national high-speed islands" and build a truly pan-European network of high-speed connections. In this respect, the most important connection in the Central European region, the "Via Vindobona", will enable fast and convenient travel between the Central European capitals of Prague, Berlin and Vienna.
Martin Kupka, Czech Minister of Transport
What if the 21st century meant the end of diesel trains? That's what seems to be happening in Germany with the inauguration on 24 August 2022 of the world's first fully hydrogen-powered railway line. The fleet of fourteen trains, supplied by the French group Alstom to the region of Lower Saxony, is now running on the hundred or so kilometres of the line linking the towns of Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde and Buxtehude, not far from Hamburg. The hydrogen-powered trains, called Coradia iLint, are pioneers in the field and are being promoted as a way of reducing CO2 emissions and replacing diesel. The new fleet, which cost "€93 million", will avoid generating "4,400 tonnes of CO2 every year", according to LNVG, the regional network operator. Germany's Siemens unveiled a prototype hydrogen train with Deutsche Bahn last May, with a view to putting it into service in 2024.
Technology is also revolutionising the sector, as Siemens Mobility is about to modernise Montreal's exotic train fleet with more environmentally friendly locomotives. Thanks to the latest technology, the company is able to produce locomotives that consume less fuel and can even run on biodiesel. They differ from other locomotives in that they reduce pollutants by 95% and greenhouse gas emissions by 89%. In addition, these new generation locomotives will also provide exo with a quieter and more reliable fleet that will increase service availability and improve the passenger experience.
We are delighted to partner with exo and look forward to working with them to modernise their fleet with the latest sustainable and intelligent rail technologies. Our state-of-the-art locomotives will provide exo and its passengers with a cleaner travel option and a safe, reliable and enjoyable travel experience. This important project builds on our work to assist Canadian cities in modernizing their transit infrastructure to meet transportation demands in a modern, safe and environmentally friendly manner.
Yves Desjardins-Siciliano, CEO of Siemens Mobility Canada
Digital technology is also revolutionising rail distribution, as demonstrated by the SNCF with a new application and website called SNCF Connect in place of OUI.sncf. This digital innovation aims to bring together all SNCF services on a single platform, except for OUIGO and Inoui Pro trains. In addition to booking tickets and searching for routes, the platform also offers the possibility of buying urban transport tickets. The final objective is to expand its train offer by providing more complete support for its customers throughout their journeys.
Trainline has also recently unveiled a new feature that alerts users about train delays. For travellers on direct journeys, they receive a notification from 15 minutes of delay, while those with connections receive one from 5 minutes of delay. This is a very useful feature when you consider that between 12 and 14% of French trains arrived late in 2019, according to the annual report of the AQST (Autorité de la qualité de service dans les transports). In addition, the British company is attracting a growing number of actors in the tourism industry, such as Travelport, which has chosen it as its preferred partner to distribute the train.
Still with the aim of encouraging more people to choose the train as a mode of transport, the websites Chronotrains EU and Direkt Bahn Guru have decided to make available a map showing the distance that can be covered from each railway station in Europe in less than 5 hours. Created by developers, these sites were made possible thanks to data from the Deutsch Bahn. An effective and fun way of showing that you can go on holiday and enjoy a change of scenery without having to take a car or plane. Digital technology at the service of the environment.
While there are many initiatives for sustainable mobility, the rail sector has not forgotten the social dimension. The Spanish government has decided to make Renfe's suburban and medium-distance public trains free of charge from 1 September to 31 December 2022. This applies to tickets for more than 10 journeys, as one-way journeys, like long journeys, continue to be charged for. While this initiative aims to reduce global warming by promoting rail travel, it is also intended to provide financial assistance to Spaniards in the face of current inflation. The government has also approved free travel on Renfe's Cercanías, Rodalies and Media Distancia trains. It is not ruling out extending the measure to 2023. Other countries are launching similar initiatives, such as Germany, which has introduced an unlimited monthly public transport ticket, valid until the end of August, for 9 euros that can be used on local and regional transport. At the end of 2021, Austria introduced a heavily discounted "climate ticket" valid on all public transport modes in the country.
Strength in unity
Partnerships and other collaborations have been numerous in the sector in recent years, always with the same aim: to promote rail travel in order to join the trend of sustainable tourism. Thalys and KLM have signed a cooperation agreement to develop their Air/Rail product, thus continuing to offer a more sustainable offer. The aim is to increase the number of customers who take the train from Brussels to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and then fly to KLM. Before the health crisis, between 20 and 25% of transfer passengers chose the Air/Rail product. With international tourism picking up again this year, the aim is now to put this offer back in the spotlight in order to boost the number of passengers opting for this alternative.
KLM wants to reduce emissions by offering rail as an alternative to short-haul flights. This new development of the Air/Rail product with Thalys is a step in the right direction. Linking the two networks at Schiphol to provide fast, efficient and comfortable connections is a positive development. This cooperation with Thalys is in line with our vision of intermodality.
Boet Kreiken, Executive Vice President Customer Experience at KLM
A similar offer is also in place in France between SNCF and Air France through the 'Train + Air' service, which allows passengers to combine train and air travel in the same booking. More than 160,000 passengers a year use this service from or to Paris-Charles de Gaulle and Paris-Orly airports. Since last year, 7 links have been added to this offer: between Paris-CDG and the stations of Aix-en-Provence TGV, Bordeaux Saint-Jean, Marseille Saint-Charles and Montpellier Saint-Roch, but also between Paris-Orly and the stations of Valence TGV, Avignon TGV, and Marseille Saint-Charles. The network now covers 18 stations.
Rail companies are also partnering with each other to offer new routes to carbon-conscious travellers. Eurostar and Deutsche Bahn have teamed up to launch EuroNight, a brand new sleeper train that will run from Hamburg to Stockholm, via London. The first journey is scheduled to take place on 1 September 2022. The EuroNight train is powered by renewable energy, with Swedish operator SJ using only hydro and wind power, and train drivers using 'freewheeling' techniques to minimise energy consumption.
In the land of La Dolce Vita, Trenitalia has decided to enter into an agreement with Enit, the national tourism promotion body. The idea of the partnership is to strengthen the promotion of the localities served by the Intercity railway network. Intercity trains now feature postcard-like Italian landscapes promoting 8 destinations within the country. This is an effective way of highlighting the different faces of Italy while promoting the train as a way of getting around to discover the territory.
We are proud of the way the Intercity train is integrated into Enit's promotion. More than five million customers will have travelled by Intercity by the end of the summer. Among the most popular destinations are the Ligurian Riviera and the Versilia region (Tuscany), Sicily and the entire Adriatic Riviera.
Domenico Scida, Unit Manager Intercity Trenitalia SpA
There is still room for improvement in the railway sector, but it is on the right track to guide the tourism industry towards a greener future. The synergies between the various actors in tourism, transport and technology point to a mode of transport that is at the forefront of sustainable development. While mobility habits are hard to break, more and more people are willing to abandon their personal vehicles in favour of more sustainable modes of transport such as rail. While price and access are still barriers for some, for others these criteria seem far less important in the face of the climate emergency we face.
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