As SNCF’s rail monopoly ends, rivals have begun operating on several French routes, but competing with Eurostar will not be so easy, says Alex McWhirter.

Until now France’s SNCF had seemed to be immune from domestic and international competition. Services such as Thalys, TGV Lyria or those operating between Paris and Germany are either with companies majority-owned by SNCF or else they are joint ventures with the French national railway company.

Soon, however, SNCF will face ‘real’ competition. Italy’s national operator Trenitalia will be launching a new service between Paris-Lyon and Milan, and will be deploying its flagship Frecciarossa 1000 units. These are some of Europe’s finest high-speed trains, and premium class passengers can look forward to both regular first and superior first carriages where the seating is just 1-1 (two across).


Ending SNCF’s monopoly is quite a breakthrough for international rail. It took two whole years before France’s transport regulator, Arafer, gave the green light. One wonders whether approval would have been granted at all were it not for the EU encouraging more competition in the 2021 European Year of Rail.

Trenitalia’s service should be up and running in December or soon after. It calls for two daily trains linking Paris with Milan, plus another three linking Paris with Lyon. Unsurprisingly, SNCF is not happy as Paris-Lyon is a ‘sacred’ route on which its TGV service was born 40 years ago and where it carries many high-revenue corporate travellers.

Hence SNCF is countering Trenitalia with project “Riposte”. To compete, SNCF has transferred more modern TGVs units. It has launched a personalised Business Première class to compete better with Trenitalia’s 1-1 offering, too. The new offering includes an exclusive Business Première lounge at Paris-Lyon station and dedicated on-board services. There are plans for the SNCF Paris-Milan route to be upgraded in due course.

If that was not enough, SNCF now faces the prospect of competition from Renfe, Spain’s national rail operator. It has applied to operate one of France’s domestic routes: Paris-Lyon-Marseille. And in late October it was revealed that Renfe wants to break Eurostar’s Paris-London monopoly. SNCF is the majority owner of Eurostar.

Last May, Spain, following the EU’s wish for more competition, opened its high-speed network to foreign operators. The two operators jumping to get in on the act were SNCF and Trenitalia. SNCF has already started operating on the Madrid-Barcelona route with Ouigo TGVs, in direct competition with Renfe. Hence the latter had hoped France would grant reciprocity. But it hasn’t turned out that way. Renfe applied to Arafer for the necessary rights but (at time of writing) the regulator had yet to respond.


What is becoming clear is that Renfe will face the same issues as those faced by Deutsche Bahn when, ten years ago, it sought rights to operate to London St Pancras from both Germany and the Netherlands. After years of trying to meet the many restrictions around the licensing of its trainsets through the Channel Tunnel authorities, Deutsche Bahn simply abandoned its plans.

It’s going to be an uphill struggle for Renfe. It must first obtain certification for its trains (these are likely to be Siemens units similar to Deutsche Bahn’s ICEs), both to transit France and to use the Channel Tunnel. Next it must meet the needs of UK Border regulations which insist that all passengers using the Channel Tunnel have been pre-cleared for immigration and security checks.

In 2019, French customs staff staged a Brexit drill forcing Eurostar passengers to form huge queues to deal with the extra checks necessary after Brexit. If UK Border regulations insist on pre-clearance before travel to the UK, such queues could become a regular and unwelcome occurrence.

Consumers may be hoping that Renfe can break Eurostar’s monopoly but, even if it can surmount the many rules and regulations, it will likely be some considerable time before the Spanish operator can run a commercial service into St Pancras.