Bump in the road for 14 billion euro SNCF Réseau high-speed project
SNCF Réseau needs the green light from the French environmental agency before breaking ground on the construction of a 14 billion euro project, extending the high-speed track linking Paris to Bordeaux on two new lines. However, the governmental organisation not only rejected the application but also delivered a harsh critique of SNCF Réseau’s proposal.
The large construction project, named Grand Projet ferroviaire du Sud-Ouest (GPSO), will extend the high-speed track linking Paris to Bordeaux the two new lines Bordeaux-Toulouse and Bordeaux-Dax. SNCF Réseau expects 5 million additional passengers per year on these lines. Construction on the first stage, the creation of the 327 new kilometres of high-speed lines connecting Bordeaux to Toulouse and to Dax, was set to begin at the end of the year, but will now be delayed due to a hiccup in the permitting process. Indeed, on 7 September 2023, the French environmental agency (Autorité Environnementale, AE) handed down a decision, indicating that further studies will have to be done by SNCF Réseau before the project can be approved.
According to the AE, “For both the rail developments north of Toulouse and the GPSO, the content of the project is insufficiently analysed and is not yet complete.” The AE report further states that “many data are obsolete (almost ten years old), [which] leads the AE to note that the file, by focusing on a dated regulatory approach, is incomplete on multiple substantive issues (artificialization, greenhouse gases, natural environments) and does not make it possible to inform the public on the evolution of the project and its impacts.” As such the AE will only be able to re-examine the project file if it is presented again by SNCF Réseau, with an updated impact study, carried out in line with the French environment code.
SNCF Réseau responds
In a press release, SNCF Réseau assures that “In accordance with the procedure set out in the French environment code, SNCF Réseau has produced an in-depth study of almost 7,000 pages, presenting in detail the major environmental challenges facing the project. The dossier submitted to the Environmental Authority includes an updated impact study (2022) for the AFNT, a component of the Grand Projet ferroviaire du Sud- Ouest (GPSO). Particular attention has been paid to updating the fauna and flora inventories, as well as to hydraulic issues.”
SNCF Réseau has said that it will take the AE’s comments into account during the other phases of the GPSO project, particularly the ‘Aménagements Ferroviaires au Sud de Bordeaux’ (AFSB), and will continue to aim for the earliest possible completion of a much-awaited project. SNCF Réseau has not however communicated more detail as to how long commissioning a new study will take, leaving much uncertainty around the effect of this hiccup on the project timeline. It seems unlikely that construction will be able to begin by 2024, for the commissioning of the line by 2030, as was originally planned.
Grand Projet ferroviaire du Sud- Ouest (GPSO)
The new Bordeaux-Toulouse and Bordeaux-Dax lines, is the first phase of the GPSO project, and will entail the creation of the new 327 kilomètres high-speed lines Bordeaux-Toulouse and Bordeaux-Dax. The new lines have a common trunk of 55 kilometres between the south of Bordeaux and the south of Gironde. These new lines connect to the national rail network south of Bordeaux, north of Toulouse, and north of Dax. The GPSO aims to increase the number of passengers per day in the region by 20 per cent, going from around 125,000 to 150,000 in the area.
Following this, rail upgrades will take place south of Bordeaux (aménagements ferroviaires au sud de Bordeaux, AFSB). More specifically, this second stage is the completion of the railway improvements to the existing Bordeaux-Sète line south of Bordeaux (AFSB) over 12 kilometres between Bègles and Saint-Médard-d’Eyrans, in Gironde. Finally, the third stage will take place north of Toulouse (aménagements ferroviaires au nord de Toulouse, AFNT). It involves the construction of the railway improvements to the existing Bordeaux-Sète line north of Toulouse (AFNT) over 19 kilometres between Toulouse Matabiau station and Castelnau d’Estrétefonds in Haute-Garonne. These developments involve laying additional tracks to allow more trains to run while redeveloping suburban stations and stops.
The project will also increase the speed of travel between cities in the area considerably: Toulouse and Bordeaux will be 1h05 away by 2030. With shorter journey times, high-speed lines reduce distances in the South-West. New high-speed services will also connect a network of towns within 30 minutes to 1h30 of Bordeaux. The GPSO will have a positive carbon balance after 10 years thanks to the modal shift from air and road to rail. Indeed, it should avoid 4.3 million car journeys after the first phase of development up to Dax, and 7.7 million once the project is fully completed.
Financing the GPSO
According to the prefecture of the Occitanie Region: “In 2022, the GPSO project entered a new phase: the financing plan of the various partners was validated and the project company, intended to finance the share of the 24 territorial authorities concerned, was set up. The GPSO is a 14-billion project, financed by the State and the local authorities of the New Aquitaine and Occitania regions, as well as the European Union. This figure includes studies, works and land acquisitions for the new Bordeaux-Toulouse and Bordeaux-Dax lines, as well as the rail improvements south of Bordeaux (AFSB) and north of Toulouse (AFNT).
The Bordeaux-Toulouse high-speed line will cost 6.6 billion euros and the Bordeaux-Dax high-speed line will cost 1.9 billion euros. The estimated costs for the creation of the Bordeaux-Toulouse new line, the rail developments south of Bordeaux (AFSB) and the rail developments north of Toulouse (AFNT) amount to 10.3 billion euro, while the creation of the new line to Dax will cost 3.7 billion euro. The funding is divided as follows: 40 per cent for the State (4.1 billion euros), 40 per cent for the local authorities (4.1 billion euros) and 20 per cent in subsidies from the European Union.