The launch of high-speed trains between Paris and Barcelona a couple of years ago meant that there was at last an international train service that would appeal to business and leisure travellers alike.
The complete line (using existing high-speed tracks plus a new extension from the Franco-Spanish border to Barcelona) was set to open in early 2013, but technical issues delayed it until the end of that year.
Still, the initial optimism has yet to be realised. In 2014, the route’s twice-daily service was increased to a robust four-trains-a-day frequency. The TGVs that serve the route are jointly operated by France’s SNCF and Spain’s Renfe.
However, for 2016, the service has been cut back to twice-daily for nine months of the year. Only during the summer – which isn’t exactly when most business travel is conducted – will frequency be restored to four trains.
While the journey time of six hours and 25 minutes will not appeal to all business travellers, the Duplex or double-deck TGVs do provide space and peace to work on board, and a new section of track between Perpignan and Nimes, opening in 2017, will shave an hour off travel times.
According to rail website seat61.com, this year’s timings have been changed for the worse. Now, the two direct trains depart Paris Lyon at 1007 and 1407 to reach Barcelona Sants at 1634 and 2034 respectively. From Barcelona Sants, you depart at either 0925 or 1320 to arrive into Paris Lyon at 1553 or 1953. It means there is a four-hour gap between services and nothing else for the rest of the day.
In the peak summer period from June to August, the additional two trains are expected, as was the case in 2014, to depart Paris at around 0715 and 1607, with returns from Barcelona at 0610 and 1607. Typical one-way fares vary between €60 and €83 for standard class and €75.50 to €90.50 for first class.
As Mark Smith, the man behind seat61.com, notes: “What market is Renfe-SNCF trying to attract? Did it think through the changes at all? Is it being operationally led instead of customer-driven?”
Before the high-speed line opened, rail-minded business travellers had the option of the luxury Elipsos overnight train which, although it took almost twice the time (along the classic route), it provided hotel standards. But sadly Elipsos was withdrawn when the high-speed line opened, so there is no longer a comfortable overnight train.
Meanwhile, one boggles at the cost of constructing merely the final length of track between Figueres, near the French border, and Barcelona. The price for this 131km-long section was e3.7 billion for the use of only a few high-speed trains daily. The new line had to be built because the Spanish gauge for its conventional trains differs from the rest of Europe.
SNCF says: “The timetable changes have been made to best respond to the demand of our customers who travel primarily for leisure and benefit from trains with later departures and earlier arrival times. These timetables allow more connections at both ends of the journey, particularly for the UK market.”
In late November, SNCF closed its long-standing ticket office on London’s Piccadilly. It will be missed by rail fans as it means that yet another “walk-in” ticket office has disappeared. SNCF says: “The demands of our customers have shifted to online channels and, therefore, we are moving more and more towards online. Customers are still able to book at voyages-sncf.com or through our call centre.”