Can France's oversized trains help the government push back against EU pro-competition measures?
France is known for its high-speed TGV network, the sleek red Thalys trains heading to northern Europe, the Eurostar to London. Lesser known are the workhorse trains of the Transport express régional (TER) service that primarily carry commuters and students in villages and small cities off the mainlines. They have gained a bit more notoriety this week in France, when Le Canard enchaîné, the weekly satirical newspaper that carries out the best overall investigative journalism in the country, has just reported that the 2000 new trains purchased by French national railway operator SNCF are too fat.
The regional trains are operated by the SNCF, the French national railway operator, on behalf of 20 of the country's regional governments, and run on the lines owned by Réseau ferré de France (RFF), the network owner.
Prior to the SNCF fobbing off the loss-making regional service onto the regions beginning in the 1990s, service quality and number of users had been in steady decline. The SNCF far preferred its shiny intercity and TGV services, and their shiny profits, to the poky trains (the metal-sided models formerly common on these lines were known as the “petit gris” or “gray snails”) that continue to this day to provide vital service to rural France, at least on the lines where the SNCF hasn't ditched them in favor of more economical bus service. Starting in 1995, the SNCF began signing contracts with regional governments determined to turn things around. The regional governments were motivated both by the principle of offering citizens the public service of affordable public transportation, and the need for a social and economic investment that allows students to travel to high school and universities, workers to get to their jobs, citizens to access public services like hospitals and courts, and consumers to come to the cities to shop.
It's a service that comes with a price, with national and regional subsidies covering nearly 80% of the cost of service, a cost to the various regions of up to 20% of their annual budgets, over 6 million euros yearly for the biggest spender, Rhône-Alpes with a network centered on Lyon (the Paris region operates under a special system). Regional transit is such a priority that one region, Languedoc-Roussillon (capital Montpellier), has decided to expand a pilot program offering tickets for just one euro to its entire network as of January 2015.
Languedoc-Roussillon and the other regions have not only reversed the decline in rail use, but seen significant increases in ridership, prompting the SNCF to order 2000 new trains from French train builder Alstom and its Canadian counterpart Bombardier, with a total cost of 15 billion euros (over 20 billion dollars).
And here's where the problem arises: these new trains are too fat. They were ordered and purchased by the SNCF on behalf of regional governments, using the regions' money. Everyone involved wanted trains that were as wide as possible to offer more seats and reduce the cost per passenger of these newly popular trains. The SNCF based its specifications on information from RFF, which assured the SNCF that per current standards, there was at least 10 centimeters available on each side compared with previous trains. Alstom and Bombadier designed their trains accordingly, only to find that those extra centimeters that exist in theory nationwide do not exist in practice in a frighteningly large number of older stations. In 1300 of the 8700 train stations in France, the platforms are too wide and the space for the train too narrow to accommodate these new trains. In these stations, it's not “mind the gap”, it's “mind the edge of the platform gashing the side of the train open like the iceberg gutting the Titanic”. While RFF gave correct specifications for current railworks, in certain regions of France the legacy stations predate these standards, and most of those do not allow enough track width for the new TER trains.
As a result, these platforms need to be narrowed, at a cost of up to 80 million euros. The regions are refusing to pay for RFF's mistake, while RFF, already heavily indebted, claims it can do the work within the scope of its existing multi-billion-euro budget, raising the eyebrows of Gallic doubters.
Meanwhile a nation is mocking, everyone is pointing fingers at each other, and politicians are making hay, with calls for official reports and parliamentary hearings.
The timing of the story is curiously convenient for those who regret the status quo of French rail, and who are working to undue the 1997 European Union-inspired spinoff of RFF. It's a problem that is allowing some who have never accepted the split of SNCF into infrastructure owner RFF and services operator SNCF (it kept the unitary firm's name) to push back in a big way. The French did as little as possible to make this separation possible, with SNCF retaining ownership of train stations (but not the platforms), and a new subsidiary of SNCF, SNCF Infra, created to carry out railway maintenance for RFF. The EU's aim was to allow competition on European rail networks, a goal that has only very slowly come to fruition in France, and on only a few routes. More important for French politicos than promoting competition to the state-owned SNCF was to free it from the crippling debt incurred by infrastructure development, allowing it to pay regular dividends to the government while saddling RFF with a burden that continues to limit its capacity to maintain and expand the network (see, for example, last year's deadly suburban rail accident at Brétigny-sur-Orge).
Current minister for transport Frédéric Cuvillier is blaming the train width cock-up on the split between the two entities, and is using this blunder to push the government's plan to reunite the rail firms in a single holding company (SNCF Groupe uniting the existing SNCF as SNCF Mobilité and RFF and SNCF Infra as SNCF Réseau). The European Union is planning to introduce stricter rules for separating network ownership and rail operations this year, and to ensure a fait accompli contrary to the spirit of this reform, the legislature has to pick up the pace. Given that the problem of the oversized trains has been known since 2013, the timing of this public revelation seems rather convenient for a government seeking to undo the pro-competition measures imposed by the EU.
It's all really odd: clearly at some point the SNCF (or RFF or whatever) would have had to bring the stations up to code. It's happening now, it could have happened earlier, it could have happened later. Had RFF (or SNCF) simply stated at the time this new project was launched that this would be the opportunity to bring all stations in line with current standards, allowing for more profitable use of the rail lines, it would have been seen as a forward thinking initiative. Instead, they look like dolts, with calls for the CEOs of both SNCF and RFF to be fired. The whole thing makes sense neither as policy nor as a plot. Maybe it is just stupidity.
And while the national government is strengthening the role of the SNCF over the national rail system, eight of the largest regions are in the process of forming a legal entity to order and purchase their own trains, to be free of their costly reliance on the SNCF. The new trains will be giving this group an extra push, as they join the protests of those refusing to pay for the dolts.