What’s new about long distance operators?

22/08/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter – Suscribe my blog
(Version en français)
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There is a lot of movement among the long-distance operators in Europe. This is an opportunity for a brief summary as we enter the last quarter of 2021.

Ouigo España

Let’s start with two projects that became reality this summer. The first began on 6 May with the launch of the Ouigo España service, a low-cost TGV operated by the SNCF, a public operator, which seems to be perfectly in line with the concept of liberalisation of the Spanish market. Occupancy rates seems to be a great success, with an average of 95% between Madrid and Barcelona for the first three months of operation. The SNCF has placed 14 Alstom Duplex TGV trainsets in Spain to cover its contract, which should soon be extended to Valencia and Alicante, before moving on to Seville after homologation on Spain’s first TGV line, built in 1992 and still equipped with German LZB signalling.

Ouigo España has to compete with the historic Spanish operator Renfe, which now offers two types of high-speed trains: the traditional AVEs, but also a novelty that became a reality last June: the Avlo.

Avlo-Renfe

The Avlo, for « AVE low cost », was launched on 23 June on the same route as Ouigo España between Madrid and Barcelona. Renfe uses S-112 trains converted into a single class with a capacity of 438 passengers. If we were to summarise the current situation on this Madrid-Barcelona route, we actually have two operators with three kind of trains:

  • AVE from Renfe
  • Avlo from Renfe
  • Ouigo España from SNCF
Frecciarossa-Trenitalia

Then there are projects, some of which will soon become reality. Let’s start with the public operator Trenitalia, which is preparing to operate on two fronts outside Italy.

The first concerns Spain. Trenitalia, in consortium with ILSA, is the third operator to compete with Renfe and Ouigo España/SNCF on three high-speed routes in Spain, including… Madrid-Barcelona! The Italian company is coming with its Frecciarossa trains, two of which are in Spain for homologation. That will be a lot of people on the Spanish network.

The second is in France. At the end of June, the Frecciarossa train was approved for use on the French network, albeit with some technical limitations. As is well known, Trenitalia uses Bombardier trainsets officially named V300Zefiro, which are now in the hands of Hitachi Rail (Alstom having had to divest itself of this branch when Bombardier was acquired).

Trenitalia intends to operate 3 round trips with these trains between Milan and Paris, in open access and under the Thello brand, which has not disappeared. The train paths have already been requested and granted. The start date of operations has been postponed due to the pandemic, but last spring there were job advertisements on social networks for drivers in Paris and Lyon.

One would have thought that Renfe was going stand idly by while this happens. It has done nothing of the kind. Like others, the Spanish public operator is looking for growth drivers. In addition to projects in France between Lyon and Marseille, Renfe has just received the green light from the Spanish Ministry of Finance to acquire 50% of the shares of Leo-Express, a private Czech operator with over 2 million passengers.

Leo-Express

Leo-Express is the smallest of the three long-distance operators in the Czech Republic, together with Ceske drahy and the private operator RegioJet. These operators are for example present on the Prague-Ostrava route. The entry of Renfe as a main shareholder in Leo Express has a direct benefit for the Spanish company, such as having activity in three more European countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland) and having the resources and licences to access the German market.

Likewise, it allows immediate access to PSO tenders in Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland, with local implementation capacity, experience, equipment or references in these countries, which are often essential to be able to bid. Renfe would also be better positioned to access the high-speed projects planned in the region. The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland are three countries that still have a lot of potential for the development of their transport infrastructure.

This is also the view of RegioJet, the other private operator in the Czech Republic, which is the largest in Central Europe. RegioJet’s ambitions are far greater than Leo-Express. RegioJet has already crossed the borders and operates trains to Bratislava, Vienna and Budapest. In 2020, the operator launched a successful summer night train between Prague and Rijeka, repeating the operation this year by extending the Croatian destination to Split, with the same success. All this without subsidies and by acquiring cars sold by the public operators ÖBB (Austria) and Deutsche Bahn (Germany).

RegioJet now plans to enter Poland with the intention of operating a two-hourly Krakow-Warsaw-Gdansk-Gdynia service, a North-South cross-country route. But RegioJet is also preparing to enter into a partnership for year-round night trains. This is the case for the project concluded with the Dutch company European Sleeper to operate a night train between Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam and Brussels. A Warsaw-Berlin-Brussels night train is also in RegioJet’s plans, a train that does not concern the Czech Republic and which proves the internationalisation of the group.

RegioJet-Czech-Republic

The above examples show the extent to which public operators are interested in opening up the long-distance market, even though they are often very reluctant to accept this reality in their own country. Seeking markets outside the country can raise various questions. Is it the role of national public enterprises to operate across borders? In fact, the question can be turned around: Is the railway destined to remain an eternal tomb of deficits? In the name of what?

Rail liberalisation is obviously not an end in itself, and some arguments, such as modal shift, doesn’t stand up. Indeed, it is often observed that new services are being created on already lucrative routes, while many long-distance routes still require state support. To what extent would night trains divert customers from planes or even long-distance buses? No one would bet on it, but it will take more than that to get air travellers off the airplanes, as they are not prepared to spend 10 hours in a train with a mask on…

On the high-speed side, Avlo, Thello and Ouigo are primarily intended to combat low-cost aviation and liberalised coaches. It is not certain that this will take motorists out of their cars. In 40 years of existence, the Paris-Lyon TGV has never succeeded in emptying the French A6 motorway.

So there are many rail initiatives to renew the sector, and seeing even state-owned operators operating outside their borders could be a sign of dynamism. But for a real modal shift, we also need to tackle the price of competing mobility in a reasoned way if we want liberalised long-distance rail not to be only « something more » to existing mobility…

22/08/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling
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