French Transportation Authority confirms positive impact of competition
The opening up of French rail passenger transport services to competition has led to an improvement in the rail offer for freely organised services in 2022, shows a recent report from the French Autorité de régulation des Transports (ART). The benefits include more trains running, lower ticket prices, and an increase in passenger numbers.
As provided for in the fourth European railway package, the opening up of contracted rail services to competition has been possible in France since the end of 2019. It will become compulsory for all services awarded from 25 December 2023 on. By mid-2023, six regions – Sud-Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Hauts-de-France, Pays de la Loire, Normandie, Grand-Est and Île-de-France – have already launched or announced their intention to gradually open up their rail services to competition.
However, other regions such as Bourgogne-Franche-Comté and Nouvelle-Aquitaine are still uncertain as to the timetable and methods for opening up their services to competition, while others, including Bretagne, Occitanie, and Centre-Val de Loire, have renewed their agreements with SNCF Voyageurs early, and will not be opening up their services to competition for another 5 to 10 years, as explained in the report. Indeed, the passenger business in France remains largely dominated by SNCF Voyageurs’ various high-speed service brands and subsidiaries.
More offers, more passengers
Two new freely organised services developed entered the French stage 2022, and were highlighted in the ART report. Trenitalia France’s TAGV service on the Paris-Lyon and Paris-Lyon-Milan routes was launched in December 2021. This was followed by the “Ouigo Train Classique” service complementing the low-cost offer of SNCF Voyageurs, via a subsidiary Oslo, on the Paris-Nantes and Paris-Lyon routes, which was launched in April 2022. Although they will each account for less than 1 per cent of passenger numbers on commercial services in 2022, the report states that their presence has clearly affected offer levels. Indeed, there has been an increase of almost 10 per cent in the number of daily services operated on the Paris-Lyon route since the end of 2021.
It has also had an effect on passenger numbers on the routes operated. For instance, Trenitalia’s offer has had a strong demand-inducing effect between Paris and Milan. The arrival of Trenitalia and the increase in Ouigo services, with both high-speed and conventional speed, between Paris and Lyon have also led to a reduction in revenue per passenger-km of more than 10 per cent.
Another example cited in the report is the Sud-PACA, “Azur” lot awarded to SNCF Voyageurs (“Les Arcs/Draguignan – Vintimille”, “Nice – Tende” and “Cannes – Grasse”): from the end of 2024, service will increase from 69 to 120 daily return trips on all services, with a frequency of 15 minutes at peak times (as part of the introduction of a metropolitan express service), with a 75 per cent increase in the number of trains, linked to optimising the use of rolling stock, at no extra cost to the transport organising authority.
After being severely affected by the health crisis, passenger train occupancy rates are back to their 2019 levels, with a record 74 per cent for high-speed trains (TAGV). By 2022, passenger rail transport has regained its pre-crisis momentum, with passenger numbers 2 per cent higher than in 2019, reaching a record 100 billion passengers/kilometres carried. TER and Intercités services have seen the biggest increase since 2019, which was 12 per cent. The resumption of a number of night train services has been accompanied by a 77 per cent increase in passenger numbers compared with 2019. On the other hand, ridership on Transilien and RER services in the Île-de-France region remains below pre-coronavirus levels.
The entry into service in 2022 of two new freely organised services, offered by Trenitalia France and SNCF Voyageurs (Ouigo classic train), has led to a reduction of more than 10 per cent in revenue per passenger-km between Paris and Lyon. Similarly, the report refers to the Sud-PACA, “Intermétropoles” package awarded to Transdev, connecting Marseille, Toulon, and Nice. This should double rail services from 2025, from 7 to 14 daily return trips, at the same cost to the transport organising authority.
The first competitive tenders for regional rail services (TER), which are compulsory from 25 December 2023, have resulted in an improved or significantly increased offer at a cost down by 20 to 25 per cent, even though France stands out in Europe for its high level of public funding for rail services (more than 20 euros per train.km in France in 2021, compared with almost 11 euros in Germany and Italy).
The Pays de la Loire, “tram-train” and “Sud-Loire” packages awarded to SNCF Voyageurs means that the offer provides for a sharp increase of 26 per cent from the end of 2026 in the transport offer and, as in Hauts-de- France, a reduction by a quarter in the cost of the service, which will continue to be operated by the incumbent operator.
In the low countries
The Dutch and Belgian governments want the opposite, namely a direct award to the incumbent operator. The European Commission is initiating legal action against the Netherlands for not correctly applying EU regulations on public transport. The Commission is concerned about the Netherlands’ plan to directly award the concession contract for the main railway network to the current operator, Dutch Railways (NS). The Dutch government intends to award the contract to NS before the end of this year, even though the provision allowing such direct awards will no longer be applicable from December 2023, except in limited circumstances.
The Commission suspects that the Dutch government is trying to bypass the new regulations by awarding the contract before the deadline, which they find unjustified. The Commission has sent a formal notice to the Dutch government, giving them two months to respond and address the issues raised. The case could be taken to the European court if the Netherlands fails to comply.