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On the path to competition

18 Mar 2008

FRANCE: Open access freight services are now operating in every region of the French rail network, according to RFF President Hubert du Mesnil. He told the sixth national train paths conference on February 6 that private companies are now running an average of 80 trains a day, and a quarter of their business is international.

The event brought together representatives of the state and régions, safety authority EPSF and no less than eight operators, including SNCF. Other participants included various transport associations and intermodal operators, all of whom are RFF 'customers' in one form or another.

Du Mesnil said that in 2007 the new freight operators achieved a 3·2% market share in terms o f train-km, but no less than 10% of tonne-km. He expects their traffic to double during 2008.

Reflecting the changing market, RFF set up a commercial department last year, headed by Hervé de Tréglodé, which sells train paths directly to the operators. RFF says there are currently six firms competing with SNCF (table); its aim is to reach 10 customers by 2010. The proportion of RFF freight income contributed by open-access operators is expected to rise from 15% this year to 20%, by which time du Mesnil believes there could be 25% more freight moving on French rails.

Despite the disruption and strikes which hindered market growth, the RFF President reported that 2007 saw a halt to the decline which had seen the number of freight trains fall by 20% in the past decade. He expects traffic to increase in 2008, citing the rejuvenation of Fret SNCF and business won back from road by a competitive rail market.

On the passenger side, RFF hopes to see traffic increase from 2010, thanks to liberalisation of the international passenger business - although du Mesnil admitted that 'no-one has knocked at the door yet'. Alstom's AGV (p146) has sparked interest at Air France-KLM, which had expressed interest in operating Roissy - Brussels - Schiphol services in connection with its flights. The airline could also launch domestic AGV services, he suggested.

For the moment, the only passenger sector with increasing traffic is the TER regional business, where all trains are still operated by SNCF. Here the key event of 2007 was the launch of a regular-interval timetable in Rhône-Alpes, which required the modification of a third of all train paths in the neighbouring regions. According to RFF, horaires cadencés also benefit freight trains, which can run to a regular pattern, leading to better line capacity. Other regions are now pressing for regular-interval TER services, with the next to be launched in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur and Bourgogne. These will followed by the two Normandies, Haute and Basse; all being well, RFF hopes to have the full network restructured on a regular-interval basis by 2013. New local operators may also appear from 2010, as Alsace president Adrien Zeller has indicated that the region will not necessarily choose SNCF when its TER contract falls due for renewal.

According to du Mesnil, work is still needed at a local level to improve access to the network for new operators. Last year saw tracks in port areas that were under RFF responsibility transferred to the harbour authorities. By contrast, the maintenance and operation of industrial sidings have been taken over by RFF, providing fairer conditions for competition on the main lines.

Du Mesnil emphasised that 'network capacity must be guaranteed for freight trains to and from ports and the main international corridors', but he insisted that 'we do not reserve paths for operators who pay more'. He said the structure of track access charges needs to be revised, noting that the charges are still as set when RFF was established in 1997, when there was no on-rail competition. This is the responsibility of the state, not RFF, he explained, pointing out that any reform of the charges in time for 2010 must be completed this year, as legally there needs to be a year between publication and application of the rates.

As the number of operators will inevitably increase, du Mesnil also endorsed plans for the establishment of a rail regulator in France. He said a formal proposal should be presented to the Assemblée Nationale this summer, with the new organisation to be launched in early 2009.

With more trains operating, the infrastructure needs to be 'in good working order', du Mesnil admitted. Work is underway on a programme which will see 50% of the network renewed or upgraded during 2006-10, and he said annual expenditure on this work would reach €1·5bn in 2010, around 60% more than in 2006.

Delivering the Sir Robert Reid lecture to the Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport in London on February 6, EWS Chief Executive Officer Keith Heller said 'we are the second-largest freight railway now in France and growing rapidly'. Predicting that the volume shifted by Euro Cargo Rail would 'grow by five times' in 2008, he admitted that today's European rail freight market was 'a challenging place to be, [but] you wouldn't want to be in another place'.

Seven freight operators in France

  • Fret SNCF
  • Veolia Cargo France
  • Euro Cargo Rail (EWS)
  • B-Cargo (SNCB)
  • CFL Cargo
  • Seco-Rail
  • VFLI (SNCF subsidiary)


Paths used by business sector, 2006

  • TGV 40%
  • Transilien 22%
  • TER 20%
  • Fret 9%
  • Grandes Lignes (Corail) 8%
  • Other 1%