‘Thalys does nothing to reduce its costs’
COLUMN – Too often, the price of a ticket on an airline is cheaper than the price of a train ticket between similar cities. Airlines have a tradition to lure passengers by giving good services. State-owned train companies, on the other hand, have a reputation of being bureaucratic.
There is an increasing awareness that on short distances, passengers should use trains instead of planes to save our climate. This awareness gives train companies a great chance to attract more passengers. But passengers compare the services and prices before they decide to take the train.
A typical example is Thalys, which has a monopoly of high-speed trains between Paris and Amsterdam. Due to its monopoly, it can ask high prices for tickets. Thalys sells tickets for the highest prices per kilometre in Europe. The effect of these high prices is that too many people avoid the train and use planes, cars and buses instead of the Thalys. Air France/KLM is still doing great business between Paris and Amsterdam. People who can not afford the high prices of Thalys, for example students, take the buses.
No incentive to be efficient
Between Brussels and Amsterdam, passengers have a choice between the fast but expensive Thalys, the Eurostar, which doesn’t continue to Paris, or the slow and cheap intercity Benelux trains. The effect is that quite often, more than 50 percent of the seats in the Thalys between Amsterdam and Brussels are empty. An airline would offer cheap tickets to fill those seats when that is the case.
Thalys does not. Thalys does not do a thing either to reduce its costs. A Thalys has a chef du train and at least three or four ticket controllers and a barman. In the First class, extra personnel are available for the catering. A monopoly has no incentive to be efficient.
The majority of the shares of Thalys belongs to SNCF, the French state-owned railway company, and a minority of the shares belongs to SNCB, the Belgian state-owned company. It is in fact a French company as well. A small but typical example: in the bar of the train, tickets for the Paris Metro are sold, which is a very practical service. But no tickets for the public transport of Brussels or Amsterdam.
Meanwhile in Italy
On the high-speed line between Rome and Milan there is no monopoly due to the fact that two companies compete. The result is a decrease of prices and an increase in the total number of passengers on the rails. Airline Alitalia lost its share of the market between Rome and Milan.
The best thing which could happen for the passengers is that a competitor is going to challenge the monopoly of Thalys. The result would be lower prices, more passengers on the rail and less in the air.