Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
It’s sleeker, more tech-friendly—and cheaper.
There’s something striking about France’s brand-new, high-speed train. The latest TGV model, launched on Thursday and due to go into service on the Paris-Bordeaux line in December, comes with a host of likable (if not exactly groundbreaking) new features. Its most unique feature, compared to previous French models, nonetheless lies somewhere else: It’s a lot cheaper.
Not exactly cheap, mind you. It will cost €1.3 billion (about $1.45 billion USD) to roll out 40 new trains—not exactly small change, even for a country that’s famous for going big on fast-train travel. Compared to previous TGV models, it will nonetheless cost 20 percent less to buy and 25 percent less to maintain. In addition, the trains will also have 20 percent greater capacity, meaning that the new model can carry up to 700 passengers, rather than the current 500. All this matters because the current priority for France’s railways isn’t pushing for yet faster trains; they can already reach 357 miles per hour, albeit under very special conditions. Right now, the priority is fighting off fierce competition by keeping down costs.
Before we look at why, it’s worth doing a tour of the new TGV features. The trains have managed to upgrade their facilities even as they squeeze more seats in. They will now have power outlets and USB ports at each seat, information screens with travel updates, more space for wheelchairs and bikes, and (proof that French rail isn’t always ahead of the game) free wi-fi beginning in July of 2017. The previously cramped restaurant cars have been given a makeover to add some tables you can actually sit at, while wood panelling on pull-down tables and luggage racks makes the cars look a little more contemporary. In first class, the seats will be fully reversible. As the video below shows, the seats can be swiftly pivoted to ensure that they always face the direction of travel.
Getting a good deal on price is still far more important than this pleasant makeover. Because while North American train enthusiasts look at France’s high-speed network with some envy, the reality is that it just scrapes by under conditions of intense competition.
When France’s first TGV services started running in 1981, domestic flights were still very much a luxury commodity, but now the service must attract customers who are offered many alternative options. Real bargain-hunters in France travel by bus—or, increasingly, via car-sharing—while planes are the main competitors on longer routes. A common protest among my French friends is that TGVs just aren’t affordable, and that they’re sometimes pushed to take the bus or train not out of preference but simply because they need to budget. Certainly, passenger numbers have been dropping somewhat since the 2008 financial crisis: For the first half of this year, TGV ridership saw a drop of 1.7 percent from numbers captured at the same time last year.
Looking at current fare prices for longer journeys this autumn, it seems that the suggestion that the trains don’t offer value for money isn’t necessarily true, at least not at the moment. Certainly, on shorter stretches, the TGV isn’t necessarily such a good value, as the price per kilometer tends to be higher. This isn’t the case for longer trips, however. I compared round-trip TGV tickets and airfares for this November between Paris and Marseille and Paris and Bordeaux, and in both cases the train came out at least €20 cheaper for both. When you factor in airport transfers, both routes have a similar journey time (the Paris to Marseille TGV normally takes three hours 15 minutes). If I were faced with a choice between a peaceful journey enjoying countryside views from a comfortable train or the endless lines and general cattle-truck indignity that always seems to come with even a short hop on a plane, I know which one I’d go for.
The issue is that the revenues from selling TGV tickets don’t cover the costs of running the lines. Most TGV routes run with a subsidy, while those that turn a profit don’t turn enough of one to recover the money invested in setting them up. That in itself is not necessarily an argument against them: The state railway company may not recoup its investment, but that doesn’t mean that France as a whole doesn’t get a major boost from its investment in a fast, super-efficient and largely affordable train network. There’s still widespread goodwill behind the network despite the cost, and investment continues. Even a 2015 report highlighting future challenges for TGV expansion noted that:
The French as a whole, from passengers to policymakers, want continued expansion of the network (beyond the four lines currently under construction) because they see high-speed rail promoting economic development of the regions and reducing the impact of transport on the environment.
This public support has allowed the high-speed rail network to continue growing. The new trains launched this week, for example, will ultimately run on a newly improved Paris to Bordeaux line that will shave the journey time from a little more than three hours to just more than two. But even with political goodwill, it is still clearly in SNCF’s interest to reduce costs as much as possible.
France’s example is an important one for any country hoping to expand high-speed rail. It’s not enough to lobby hard for the initial investment money to set up a line. Maintaining these lines—and maintaining their viability in the face of competition from other modes—is just as important, and the argument for continuing the service may need to be made again and again. Creating a high-speed network is no easy task, but as the French public’s ongoing support for TGV even when it is under stress shows, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it.