Budget rail services are popular in mainland Europe but the UK seems reluctant to encourage more low-cost operators, says Alex McWhirter.

Thalys’ recent axing of Izy between Paris and Brussels may suggest low-cost rail has not been a success. Izy was a low-cost rival to Thalys. Whereas Thalys uses the high-speed line, Izy took the conventional, slower route, but its fares were lower and it offered both standard and first class seating.

A Thalys spokesperson was unable to give a convincing reason for withdrawing Izy other than to say cutting Izy would provide customers with “greater clarity”.

If Izy had been creating customer confusion then one could say the same issue may arise for SNCF (the majority shareholder of both Thalys and Eurostar), for it is SNCF (more than any other operator in Europe) which is powering ahead with another low-cost operator – Ouigo – within both France and Spain.

In France, Ouigo competes alongside SNCF’s traditional trains and SNCF has adopted the business plan of budget airlines to drive down ticket costs. Ouigo trains are no-frills, reservations only, electronic ticketing plus there are different rules concerning luggage, reporting times, and so on.

Europe’s low-cost routes

SNCF operates two Ouigo services. The main one is Ouigo TGV which has increased its network out of Paris to cover much of France. Services are high-speed using double-deck TGVs. More recently SNCF started Ouigo Classic. The first two routes operate between Paris, Lyon and Nantes. This is a different product. SNCF uses conventional, older Corail rolling stock. Ouigo Classic shuns modern high-speed lines with their costly toll fees in favour of the original but slower routes. Do not be discouraged by use of Corail rolling stock. Rail experts say it is among the best of Europe’s mainline rolling stock.

SNCF has also exported its Ouigo TGV service to Spain since the country invited foreign operators to use its high-speed rail lines. SNCF seized the opportunity last year when it launched Ouigo ES between Madrid and Barcelona. Spanish national operator Renfe responded with Avlo (Spain’s low-cost version of Ouigo) and now Iryo (a joint venture between Italy’s Trenitalia and Air Nostrum) will join later this year. Initially services will run between Madrid and Barcelona but other high-speed lines are planned.

Elsewhere in Europe the picture is mixed. Germany and Sweden have Flixtrain (a German operator). The latter has a growing network in Germany but in Sweden it is limited to Stockholm-Gothenburg. In fact, Flixtrain’s business plan (operating older trains over conventional lines) launched before SNCF’s Ouigo Classic.

What about the UK?

In the UK there is just one low-cost operator – Lumo. It runs trains between London and Edinburgh. One-class Lumo competes with incumbent LNER over our most prestigious route by offering something different. Lumo aims to rival budget airlines, and while it does offer some frills, it is a different type of service and uses new trains.

It has certainly caught the public’s imagination on this busy route. Lumo’s trains run at higher capacity than those of LNER. Indeed some are fully booked weeks ahead.

There seems to be considerable appetite for no-frills rail services yet rail operators are surprisingly reluctant to provide them. SNCF is happy to operate Ouigo in France and Spain but, despite its majority Eurostar shareholding, baulks at running a similar service from Paris to London.

As we reported four years ago, a Eurostar ‘light’ option would be welcomed both by passengers and the Channel Tunnel. Since its launch in 1994 Eurostar has considered itself more an airline than a train operator. But whereas aviation has changed a lot since 1994, the Eurostar product has not to the same degree.

Meanwhile, Renfe has published plans to operate a high-speed Paris-London route. We live in hope and it remains to be seen what sort of product it will offer should it be allowed to compete with Eurostar.