Spain’s RENFE branches out to operate high-speed rail in France bringing more competition to air travel and furthering the rail versus air debate

Spain’s state rail operator RENFE has requested the necessary permits from the French authorities to deliver its own high-speed rail services in France. It makes no bones about its objective, which is “to enter France to compete at high-speed with its own services and resources,” and a move that will add further to rail versus air discussion that is already fairly active in the European country.


Summary:

  • Spain’s RENFE is to enter the French market with high-speed trains – both systems operate on common gauge track;
  • RENFE’s initial objective is to compete with what is a well-established, fast and comfortable service in France;
  • But could this be a forerunner to international competition that would really give air transport a run for its money?

The Blue Swan Daily and CAPA – Centre for Aviation, have both published reports recently on the desire amongst governments to replace air travel with rail travel over shorter distances (usually defined as 400 km to 600 km). In these, it was revealed that a French National Assembly Member has announced plans to submit a legislative proposal aiming to limit domestic air traffic that is able to be substituted by rail; one that is supported by a high number of other MPs.

SEE RELATED REPORT: The air to rail substitution – now the French are considering domestic air to rail shift

France has had its TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, or ‘high-speed train’), a state-owned intercity rapid rail service, since 1981 and it now connects most (although not all) of Frances’s main cities, at least to Paris. Several important regional cities are not yet connected to each other by TGV. Nevertheless, one might think the TGV, which has been taking domestic passengers away from Air France, its Hop! subsidiary and others and which is one of the fastest in the world, was in an unassailable position.

That isn’t how Spain’s RENFE sees it. RENFE, which is Spain’s state rail operator (not the track infrastructure company, that’s ADIF) has operated its own high-speed ‘AVE’ (Alta Velocidad Española) network since 1991, connecting Spain’s major cities (and not only with Madrid) and running on international standard gauge track, in anticipation of its eventual connection to the rest of the European railway system. A new line to Lisbon in Portugal is under development and a joint RENFE/SNCF high-speed train already operates between Barcelona Sants and Paris Gare de Lyon stations with a journey time of 6 hours 15 minutes.

Now RENFE’s board of directors has approved the company’s entry into high-speed rail in France from Dec-2020. The company has requested the necessary permits from the French authorities, including rail competition commission ARAFER, EPSF (the French railway safety authority), and SNCF Reseau. The operator will initially not operate a Paris service (meaning presumably from Madrid so as not to tread on the toes of the joint Barcelona service) due to what it describes as “technical difficulties” and will study that destination in a second phase investigation.

The Spanish company will operate these services with S100 trains, manufactured by Alstom and already approved to operate in French territory, and will open a permanent office in France based in Lyon as part of this international expansion.

It has already taken several steps in the internationalisation of the company. It is working already in Saudi Arabia on a technically complex project to connect the cities of Mecca and Medina by rail. Last year RENFE was awarded a project for the design, construction and operation of the high-speed train between Houston and Dallas, in the USA, a distance of 386 km which will have a journey time of 90 minutes or less.

Nevertheless it is the French deal which is exciting RENFE as it is one of the first such arrangements in Europe. There are already deals on the lines connecting Paris and northern France with the Benelux countries but this is on a different scale.

The opportunities for RENFE if it can acquire a sufficient market share in France is that it could clean up on travel between southern France (say from Lyon southwards) to Northern Spain (from Barcelona across to Zaragoza and westwards, from 530 km distance). And it would do so at the expense of regional and in some cases heavily used network and low-cost airline routes. And as trains get faster as presumably they will, and more environmental pressure is heaped on airlines, that operational scope could increase further.

The one question that nobody asks about rail competing with air is what about consolidation. For years ‘experts’ and pundits and have been predicting the consolidation of the European airlines into a handful of big ones. We’ve moved in that direction but aren’t quite there yet.

But what if the rail companies, of Spain, France, Germany, Italy, and the Benelux countries were to merge into one company with the specific aim of taking on the continent’s airlines, pooling infinite resources into research into the practical application of Hyperloop, for example? That would also enable them to do something they have seemed incapable of – constructing international point-to-point fares at levels appropriate to business and leisure, involving multiple operators. The RENFE deal with the French might well be the precursor to such an eventuality.