A turning point is shaping up in the country’s railway history. This Tuesday, the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region announced that it wanted to change operator for the TER Marseille-Toulon-Nice line. Instead of the SNCF, it is therefore Transdev which will normally be responsible for running the trains. The decision has yet to be confirmed by a vote, scheduled for October 29. But it is a concrete translation of the opening up to competition in rail, which could soon extend to other regions and other lines. 20 Minutes make the point.
Which lines are open to competition?
TER lines, which are managed by the regions, may be subject to competition. For the moment, only five territories (PACA, Grand-Est, Hauts-de-France, Ile-de-France and Pays-de-la-Loire) have launched calls for tenders on part of their network. The other regions will be able to wait until 2023, date of the end of the agreements with the SNCF, to get started in their turn.
The procedure is quite long. “Between the launch of the call for tenders and the official takeover of the line by the new operator, it can easily pass two and a half years” recalls Arnaud Aymé, transport specialist at SIA Partners. Thus, on the Marseille-Toulon-Nice line lost by the SNCF, the change of operator will not be visible until 2025.
The first “competition trains” are expected at the end of 2023 in Hauts-de-France, between Paris and Beauvais, around Amiens and around Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise (Pas-de-Calais); in the Grand-Est between Strasbourg, Saint-Dié-des-Vosges and Epinal. In Ile-de-France, the T4 and T11 tram-trains will be subject to competition, just like the RER and suburban trains (by 2032).
At the national level, the Intercités lines (or TET, regional balance train) are also open to competition. But so far, it’s not a great success. At the end of 2020, the government thus declared the call for tenders launched for the Nantes-Lyon and Nantes-Bordeaux lines “unanswered”. Only the SNCF had applied.
What about high speed lines?
In theory, SNCF’s competitors can run their “TGVs” on French rails since the start of the year. “The world of high speed is a real wall of investment,” recalls Arnaud Aymé. Unlike the TER provided by the regions, you do not have equipment available, you have to acquire it or already have it, and this is expensive. In addition, the Covid-19 affected the business trips which fill the TGV, so that could have cooled the competitors ”.
However, things should change quite quickly. The Italian company Thello should therefore offer Paris-Lyon-Milan connections from October, after having carried out tests with its trains in August. And its Spanish counterpart, Renfe, is interested for its part in the journey between Lyon and Marseille.
Can travelers expect real change with the new operators?
The promises are not lacking. “We are going to have ‘super’ prices (…) We are going to have trains on time, we are going to have discounts, with quality of service! The president of the PACA region, Renaud Muselier, got excited at the end of 2019. In fact, on the Marseille-Nice line, Transdev plans to double the daily frequency (from 7 round trips to 14) at no additional cost.
On the tariffs, it is the communities which keep control, since they largely subsidize the price of the ticket (the receipts travelers cover only 25% of the expenses). “For TER, the operator ultimately has relatively little leeway once the contract has been signed,” remarks Bruno Gazeau, president of Fnaut (National Federation of Transport User Associations). We are obviously waiting for improvements on punctuality and passenger information in the event of a deteriorated situation ”. But he also warns: “It doesn’t all depend on trains. If you have a track in bad condition, competition or not, that will not change anything ”.