We Go More Cheaply Across France on High Speed Rail
For European travelers – especially Brits – flying cheaply has become a normal way of getting around the continent, with carriers like easyJet and Ryanair providing very low fares by offering no-frills service connecting smaller airports. In France, offering low-cost travel has been a priority for SNCF since the TGV opened in 1981, as tickets have been subsidized so that high speed trains become the dominant form of intercity travel.
With new right-wing EU rules requiring high speed tracks to be opened up to competition in service, SNCF is offering a completely new type of TGV service to try and capture some of the ultra-low-cost market. As Yonah Freemark explains at The Transport Politic:
SNCF has now extended the principle further with the introduction of its OuiGo* service this week. Attempting to spur more train ridership, particularly among car owners living in the eastern suburbs of Paris, OuiGo will offer 300 km/h TGV speed at very low prices, starting at €10 for journeys between the Paris region and the Mediterranean coast (Montpellier and Marseille, via Lyon), a trip of about 500 miles (10% of overall tickets will be as low as that, with the rest increasing to a maximum of €85). SNCF claims that these ticket prices are the lowest available in the world for high-speed trains. Current TGV tickets start at €19 for similar journeys, but generally are above €50. OuiGo tickets will always be cheaper than equivalent TGV tickets on similar journeys.
OuiGo brings the aviation low-cost concept to high-speed railways. In exchange for a cheap ticket, customers will be charged for a second carry-on bag; they’ll pay more for the use of an electrical outlet; they’ll be unable to change their tickets without a fee. There will be fewer conductors — only four per train, who will also be tasked with some maintenance. Double-decker trains will seat 1,268 passengers, not because seats have been compressed (unlike the airlines, thank god), but rather because the first class and dining car spaces have been replaced by economy-class areas. Trains themselves will be scheduled to run more often than typical TGVs, traveling about 80,000 kilometers per month, double the normal rate….
Like Ryanair, Europe’s foremost low-cost airline, OuiGo will not serve the more convenient passenger terminals where most TGVs board and alight. Rather, the Paris region stop will be located 20 km east of the city in Marne La Vallée (the location of Disneyland Paris); Lyon’s, instead of being in the center of the city, will be out at the St. Exupéry airport. One major reason for this service pattern is that the public agency that owns the tracks (RFF) charges SNCF (also a public agency) more for the use of tracks and stations in center city areas than those in the suburbs. Labor represents for only about 20% of TGV operations costs, while track fees, which are becoming increasingly onerous (they will be augmented by €200 million in 2013 alone) and which pay for maintenance and upgrades, account for a large potion of expenditures.
This is still something of an experiment, with just four trains devoted to the OuiGo service so far. If it succeeds, then one would assume more OuiGo trains would be put into service.
Overall it’s an interesting if slightly troubling model. The goal appears to be to make high speed rail travel even more affordable not by raising subsidies for tickets or by increasing the incomes of the potential riders, but by slashing costs. I suppose that first class is no great loss, though a dining car is one of the pleasures that makes rail travel civilized and more enjoyable than the cattle cars that pass for airplanes. But what struck me was the idea that you’d have only a small handful of conductors who also do some maintenance. That’s a recipe for exhausted and overworked staff who would be more prone to making mistakes. But then, for most economic elites these days, workers are to be brutally exploited and tossed aside when burnt out, rather than treated fairly and paid well.
As austerity begins to hit across the European continent, including in France, cut-rate options for rail travel will become more of a norm. That’s despite the fact that austerity is hugely unpopular, as the recent Italian elections showed, as well as economically ruinous, as Britain’s sorry state shows.
Austerity has hit the US as well, first at the state and local level beginning in 2008-09, and now at the federal level, with this week’s idiotic sequester cuts being just the latest example. Eventually the self-destructive mania of austerity will fade, but even when that happens, I suspect there will still be pressure to be frugal in operating new infrastructure.
Which brings me to my point. Will California high speed rail service resemble the classic TGV, or will it more closely resemble OuiGo? A wide variety of factors will go into determining service levels and fares for California’s bullet trains, including debt service, private profit goals, ridership, and public demand for various amenities. I could see a California HSR service that is somewhere in between, with a dining car and a business class section but where coach cars have cheap fares but high fees for things like checked baggage, use of WiFi and the electric outlet, and so on.
We’re still quite a few years out from having to make these decisions. But those decisions ought to be political choices. The purpose of building a high speed rail system in California is not to turn a profit, but to encourage people to travel in a comfortable and convenient way that also reduces carbon emissions. Under the current version of Prop 1A government cannot subsidize the operation of the bullet trains. That’s unfortunate, and suggests that a service like OuiGo is worth paying close attention to as it may be in California’s future.
To be clear, OuiGo isn’t awful. It’d still be worth the trip, would still be a far better choice than driving, and would probably be more comfortable than flying. It would do well in California. But I can’t help but wish that quality of the experience and getting as many people as possible to ride the trains were the top priority, rather than saving money. We will see how this all plays out.