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Air transport does not fit into SNCF pioneering vision

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France is proud of its rail network and it has all the reasons to be like this: French national rail company SNCF is certainly a leading rail operator in Europe.

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France is proud of its rail network and it has all the reasons to be like this: French national rail company SNCF is certainly a leading rail operator in Europe. It is efficient, reliable, has modern carriage, offers a range of prices to any budget and it includes the most comprehensive high-speed rail network of any European countries. Today, TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) network integrates close to 1,900 kilometers of high-speed tracks and carries some 100 million travelers a year.

Over the next decade, the TGV network is due to continue its expansion over the next decade. The opening of a new line to Britanny (182 km of new high speed track) to France Southwest (302 km of tracks) was financially secured last July, a new Rhine-Rhône line (425 km) will link Alsace to Lyon, the Tours-Bordeaux new line will also help to reduce travelling time between Paris and Bordeaux from 3h10 to only two hours. In the longer term, a new high-speed track between Marseille and Nice in France Southern. Within the next 15 years, the TGV network will then add another 2,000 km. France’s Ministry of Ecology and Energy as well as the state secretary for transport expect a total investment of over €12 billion representing 50,000 jobs over the next five years.

However, the SNCF seems to be extremely reluctant to integrate airports into its network. “Rail services from and to airports are just pathetic. The fact that Orly airport with its 25 million annual passengers has no proper integrated rail station is just scandalous,” said Jacques Sabourin, head of the French Airports Association UCCEGA- Aéroports Français.

So far, only two airports benefit from an integrated rail station–Paris CDG and Lyon St Exupery. And despite the proximity of rail lines to Lille, Marseilles, Nice or Basel-Mulhouse airports, train services remain inexistent despite the support of many regional politicians who recently “jumped into the train” of sustainable development.

Despite the obvious environmental benefits that an integrated rail connection can bring to passengers, SNCF seems, however, reluctant to embrace the vision of connecting airports to its network. Best example is given at Lyon Airport. France’s third largest airport with some eight million passengers a year, Lyon is the second French airport to have a dedicated high-speed train station. But it looks almost like a white elephant as only twenty trains stop there everyday. In 2007, less than 1 percent of all passengers at Saint Exupéry Airport used the inter-modality rail/air.

“Unfortunately, it seems that the SNCF continues to consider air transport as its competitor without looking seriously at the complementary role played by air transport for the train. And it has a negative impact for our airport as we do not get the rail network we deserve,” said Philippe Bernand, Lyon Airport general director.

According to Bernand, the train station is even not linked to the two large cities of Marseille and Montpellier, natural complementary markets for Lyon airport’s catchment area. “We plead many times the SNCF, asked even Rhône-Alpes Regional Council or the Ministry of Transport to intervene in our favor. Without any result.”

The paradox is that Lyon Airport rail station sees 200 trains passing through every day without stop on the axis Paris-Southern France. “But asking the SNCF to have some trains stopping at our airport is always denied as SNCF tells that it would slowdown its time performance. But what would be the difference of adding 2 to 5 minutes to some trains”? asked the airport director.

Lyon is not obviously the only one to struggle with a proper rail connection. It took years for Marseille Provence Airport, fourth largest French airport with 7 million passengers, to have a good train connection. Last December, the new Vitrolles-Airport Train Station finally opened to the public. Located five minutes by bus from the air terminals, it is, however, still served on a very irregular basis which makes it inconvenient for passengers: only 20 trains link Marseille city to the airport in a day with no train at all between 8:30 am and noon.

At Nice airport (over 10 million passengers/year), a future high speed train station integrating a mult-modal transporation center will built in St Augustin in the airport’s vicinity. The project, which is part of the new TGV line in Provence, has finally received the government’s green light last June. But it will not materialize at best before 2020. SNCF lack of interest means that France’s airports are now among the least connected to rail services, especially when compared to most countries located in Northern Europe or to Switzerland.

Meanwhile, SNCF announced last week it has registered its first net loss since 2003 at €496 million for the first-half year 2009. Although freight activities contribute to the largest part of the loss (65 percent of the total), the French national rail company saw also a drop in passengers turnover, down by 1.7 percent during the first half-year.

(1 euro=US$1.45)

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