INTRO: As owner of the national network, Réseau Ferré de France is playing a key role in the railway reform programme that began in 1997. RFF President Claude Martinand explained to Robert Preston how the infrastructure authority is bringing a new approach to investment projects, applying stricter financial criteria and developing solutions to tackle wider issues of capacity

The creation of a new public body to own and develop the French national network was perhaps the most radical change introduced by the railway reform programme of 1997, which according to RFF President Claude Martinand ’utterly transformed’ the way in which infrastructure projects are funded. At the helm of the infrastructure authority since it came into being, Martinand is a key player in the reform process, and sees ’raising the game’ of the network managed by SNCF on RFF’s behalf as one of his main tasks.

Upon its creation, RFF took on debt amounting to Fr134·2bn that had been run up by SNCF on infrastructure projects, mainly the development of the French high-speed network. But RFF is not allowed to undertake projects that will have a negative effect on its own balance sheet. Weighing the cost of construction and maintenance against the additional access charges that new infrastructure will generate, projects must generate a return of around 8%, says Martinand, which means that most if not all require public funding at regional, national and European level.

Over the next few years investment spending is likely to be at the level of Fr12bn a year, with RFF providing Fr7bn. Martinand warns that a ’huge effort’ will have to be made at all levels to fund projects in the 2000-06 contract-plans now being signed by the government and the regions, which foresee up to 10 times more spending than under previous plans. High speed line construction should be in full swing again in around three years’ time, and this represents something of a ’time bomb’ for the public purse.

Looking to divide investment equally between high speed lines and the conventional network, RFF sees freight as lying at the heart of its priorities, which also include ’measured’ development of the high speed network. ’We don’t say that you have to build a new line from A to B’ notes Martinand, who says that RFF looks for the best, cost-effective solutions to provide extra capacity on key sections of the network, taking the needs of freight and regional passenger traffic into account.

New lines engineered for both freight and passenger traffic are increasingly gaining favour, both for the tunnel crossings into Italy and Spain and for domestic routes such as the southern branch of TGV Rhin-Rh