APRIL 1 marks the long awaited liberalisation of civil aviation in the European Union. In theory, any EU airline will be able to fly between any cities charging any fare. When this happened in America a decade ago, the results were dramatic. As Jack Duchemin, a manager with SNCF, pointed out in Airports Council International’s Communiqué last October, fares have dropped to US$40 for a 1000 km flight. Yet the companies offering these bargains ’show double-digit growth rates and they are all, without exception, making profits.’ The same phenomenon can be seen in Latin America and parts of South East Asia where, for example, the air fare between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur is a mere US$30.
Whether fares will tumble that quickly in Europe remains to be seen, but for railways the warning signs are clear enough. Airline boarding procedures are being simplified, and the notional journey times of 3h or more between city centres which railwaymen love to quote include airport dwell times that are far from reality for travellers without checked baggage. In any case, few journeys start and finish in city centres.
Duchemin overstates his case when he refers to European politicians as ’still under the charm - now outdated - of the high speed train’, but he is right to sound an urgent warning. Changes in operations, marketing and service standards on inter-city trains are going to have to be just as dramatic as those in the air if the 300 km/h train is to compete on commercial terms with the 800 km/h plane in a deregulated Europe.
Unfortunately, inter-city trains are currently caught up in what promises to be a long search for the optimum framework to replace the classic state railway. While track authorities and open access are designed to mimic the situation in the air, it is far from proven that the benefits of fragmenting functional responsibility in the guided transport mode outweigh the drawbacks.
Amazingly, it is airline entrepreneur Richard Branson of Virgin who has the biggest stake in proving Duchemin’s gloomy prognosis wrong. The terms of Branson’s second rail franchise in Britain (p216) require him not just to bring the West Coast main line into profit, but to pay a premium in the final year exceeding current gross ticket sales. And this is after paying for a fleet of 40 tilting trains capable of 225 km/h which must operate on a congested mixed traffic railway mostly built before 1850, not a 300 km/h line dedicated to TGVs. We salute a gamble of truly heroic proportions - and note that Branson named one of his Class 90 locomotives Mission Impossible on the first full day of the West Coast franchise. o
On March 10 at London Euston Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson (left) launched the first Virgin West Coast train carrying Virgin Rail livery (below), with an interior refit carried out by Adtranz, and a new discounted bargain fare, Shuttle Advance, of £17·50 to Manchester