Rail: Ready for revival

1 Nov 2021 by Alex McWhirter

Daytime high-speed train journeys have become increasingly popular in mainland Europe, but further competition is needed to encourage growth, reports Alex McWhirter.

France’s TGVs ushered in the era of high-speed rail across Europe 40 years ago. Since then the Alstom TGV and its rivals from Germany and Italy have expanded their networks across mainland Europe. In fact, it was faster daytime trains which led to the decline of night trains across Europe, which thankfully now see a revival – see our feature Night trains: Sleeping Giant – in the last issue of Business Traveller.

The number of travellers using daytime high-speed rail had grown substantially over the past 40 years until the pandemic arrived. Passenger numbers have not yet recovered. As background, almost all high-speed rail, domestic and international, is in the hands of state-owned incumbents, so competition is limited and it is competition that drives rail growth.

This year is the European Year of Rail and one nation, Spain, opened its borders to high-speed competition with positive results. Spain’s Renfe must now compete with France’s SNCF. It will face further competition in 2022 when Ilsa – a joint venture between Trenitalia (45 per cent share) and Air Nostrum – appears on the scene. Ilsa will be deploying Frecciarossa 1000 trainsets of Trenitalia. One of these is currently in Spain awaiting certification.

This competition represents a bright spot in high-speed rail with new services and lower fares resulting in major traffic growth. Renfe has had to respond with its own Avlo high-speed units and these, combined with SNCF’s Ouigo ES trainsets, have grown a market previously monopolised by Renfe’s conventional AVE services.

Initial results show the benefits. All Rail (the Alliance of Passenger Rail New Entrants in Europe) says, “The evidence is clear. New long distance passenger rail competition [in Spain] introduced earlier this year between Madrid and Barcelona has already boosted passenger numbers to surpass pre-Covid levels.”

Adif (Spain’s rail regulator) says that in August 308,991 passengers travelled on the high-speed Madrid-Barcelona route compared to 265,217 in 2019.

The regulator notes that normally in summer there would be fewer passengers using the above line.

Currently all three high-speed services are limited to the busy Madrid-Barcelona route but there are plans for high-speed operators to expand their networks to cover other destinations, such as Alicante, Seville and Valencia.

Ouigo ES launched services last May. It was reported by railway media that in the first three months of service Ouigo ES achieved load factors as high as 95 per cent.

A TGV Duplex high-speed train in Ouigo livery. Credit: olrat/iStock

When it comes to international high-speed operations, most are operated either as a joint venture or by a service joint-owned by two or more operators. An example of the former would be the venture between SNCF and Germany’s Deutsche Bahn. The latter would include operations such as Thalys, TGV Lyria or Eurostar.However, competition on one route is expected by the end of this year.

Italy’s Trenitalia will compete against SNCF between Paris, Turin and Milan. Initially it will be operating two daily Frecciarossa trains. The service ought to start in December when rail operators change schedules. Trenitalia has been waiting two years for Arafer (France’s rail regulator) to grant its approval. SNCF will have to face international competition in terms of prices for the first time. Trenitalia, like its domestic rival Italo, has some of the most comfortable premium cabins on their high-speed trains.

SNCF has announced ‘Project Riposte’ whereby it will update its TGVs so they can better compete with Trenitalia’s Frecciarossa 1000 units. Later SNCF says it may deploy its next generation TGVs (initially referred to as TGV-M) on the route. Managing director of voyages Alain Krakovitch told La Tribune that TGV-M will be used as a “weapon” to compete with Italy’s Frecciarossa 1000 trains. He added TGV-M will have “a design and services that others will not have”.

With more business people and their employers enforcing greener travel policies there is further growth in high-speed rail and this also applies to longer journeys. Unlike air, rail has the room to provide more spacious seating to meet the demands of corporate users.

China shows what can be done. Its new generation of 350 k/h Fuxing trains operating Beijing-Shanghai (journey time 4.5 hrs for 1,300 kms) has airline-style seating which is referred to as business class but could almost pass for an airline’s first class seating. The new train’s premium seats come with 5G communications and cloud computing.

There is no doubt that high-speed rail is set to expand further. Paris-Milan is a good example. Another would be the high-speed trains operating between the far north and the far south of Italy. Trenitalia wants to order a shorter-in-length version of its Frecciarossa units. These would be deployed between Milan and Palermo using the train ferry across the Straits of Messina.

It’s no surprise Siemens is looking at whether or not to install airline-style premium seating in its first class zones. A Siemens spokesperson told Business Traveller, “We are watching this development [fitting airline-style seating] and airline seat suppliers are indeed looking for new markets.”

The aim is to make high-speed rail more competitive with air for rail journeys of 2.5 hours as governments seek to decarbonise transport, Siemens Mobility’s CEO rolling stock Albrecht Neumann told industry magazine IRJ.

Already in France domestic aviation has been banned on similar sectors with the exception of flights operating from the regions to Air France’s hub at Paris CDG.

As noted above, SNCF will soon face international high-speed competition. Whether or not it will face a domestic high-speed rival is a moot point. Not only are high-speed trains costly but they are also complex. Additionally, new trains must be certified and this takes time.

That’s the issue faced by high-speed newcomer Le Train, which wishes to operate high-speed rail in south-west France. It wants to acquire used TGVs from SNCF to operate this route. However, as EU transport expert Jon Worth noted in a tweet, “A new company ‘Le Train’ wants to run Arcachon-La Rochelle services. The problem? It can’t get any trains for the service… because SNCF is scrapping its old ones [TGVs] instead of re-selling them. The solution? EU should put blanket ban on scrapping.”

Regular readers will remember a similar scenario at Eurostar where almost all its original Alstom units were scrapped thus preventing competition as only specific trains may transit the Channel Tunnel.

When the pandemic finally comes to an end we shall see daytime high-speed rail begin its revival.

Loading comments...

Search Flight

See a whole year of Reward Seat Availability on one page at SeatSpy.com

Business Traveller Decenber 2023 / January 2024 cover
Business Traveller Decenber 2023 / January 2024 cover
Be up-to-date
Magazine Subscription
To see our latest subscription offers for Business Traveller editions worldwide, click on the Subscribe & Save link below