MUCH hot air has been expended in recent months over plans by French National Railways to withdraw a number of inter-regional passenger services. Matters came to a head on August 16 when strike threats obliged SNCF to backtrack on earlier announcements and say that no firm decision had been taken.

SNCF says that its 25 inter-regional services lose €124m a year, a figure inflated by rising access charges from RFF and higher electricity prices. It has been seeking to reduce the loss since 2003, when it proposed running fewer trains on several routes, including Lille - Strasbourg, Quimper - Bordeaux and Nantes - Lyon, as well as withdrawing two daily return trips between Caen and Tours.

In 2004 SNCF pulled the inter-regional trains out of its Grandes Lignes business, thereby drawing attention to the cost of running them. In the Lille - Strasbourg corridor the regions agreed to provide replacement TER local services over parts of the route, and SNCF withdrew the through trains. In the other three corridors the regions refused to pay for long-distance services crossing regional boundaries when they already funded TER local trains, while central government made it clear that it would not provide further grants.

It should be said that cross-country services in France are few and far between at the best of times, and the proposed cuts will no doubt further discourage rail travel on the routes affected. On the other hand we recall that RFF is looking at regular-interval timetables across the French network. Surely this is an opportunity for SNCF to study seriously how much additional traffic could be generated by running frequent regular-interval services between key towns and cities on selected provincial main lines? It works in Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland and elsewhere, so why not in France?