“Opening up to competition only benefits incumbent rail operators” – Ville, Rail et Transports

Hervé Le Caignec, the president of Lisea, explained to VRT why the concession company of the Tours-Bordeaux high-speed link wants to build a maintenance center. According to him, the difficulties of access to rolling stock and maintenance centers are blocking the opening up to competition.

City, Rail & Transport: You have not yet succeeded in attracting an operator other than the SNCF on the Tours-Bordeaux link. How do you explain it?

Hervé Le Caignec : Today, what we see is that competition only benefits incumbent operators within the framework of the opening up of freely organized services. This is true for TGVs, but also for Intercités and night trains. Because when new companies are created to operate night trains or Intercity trains, they come up against two major barriers: access to equipment and maintenance.

In high speed, the most successful example is found in Spain, where the infrastructure manager has decided to open up its network to operators other than RENFE. The SNCF was thus able to launch rail services and another operator, resulting from a partnership between an airline company and Trenitalia, will arrive very soon. We can already see that in Spain, competition has allowed the development of the offer in a very significant way, with a drop in prices. Demand is there and there is a very high train occupancy rate. But, unlike France, the tolls are low because public contributions to infrastructure financing are higher in Spain.

In France, the Paris-Lyon axis (served since December by Trenitalia) has very little available capacity. However, Trenitalia will very soon be offering two additional round trips per day, i.e. a total of 5 daily round trips. This shows that the arrival of new operators is possible even in France where tolls are higher. We therefore see, with these two examples, that a toll is not a foil because everyone is on an equal footing. But this is only possible with incumbent operators who have significant rolling stock. And if that doesn’t require them to go to a competitor’s service center.

VRT: Are all these conditions met in Spain?

HLC : In Spain, rolling stock manufacturers have maintenance centres, which is not the case in France.

To run Ouigos in Spain, the SNCF did not buy any equipment but chose to take some in France. It therefore reduced its activity in our country.

For its part, on the Paris-Lyon line, Trenitalia can bring its trains back to Italy every day to access its maintenance centers. It is clear that access to equipment and to maintenance centers are the two conditions for opening up the market to competition. We have observed this for a long time. This is why, two years ago, we decided to build a maintenance center that we will make available to operators.

VRT: Have you chosen the location of the maintenance center you want to open?

HLC: We started by looking at the entire Bordeaux area to see if the SNCF could provide us with a plot that would be connected to the rail network. Today we are looking for a site by ourselves. We have a few leads. The site must be as close as possible to one end of the service so that the journey of the train is as short as possible. So either in Ile-de-France, which we finally excluded because the region is totally saturated. Either in the Bordeaux area. Marcheprime is one of the options. This maintenance center could be used, for example, by Railcoop or another operator wishing to go to Marseille, Toulouse or the Massif Central.

VRT: How will this site work?

HL C. : This maintenance center should be designed to be multi-operator, taking into account the different needs of operators sharing the same site. In other words, he will have to offer dedicated lanes for each of them, or even lanes for parking in the enclosure. And access to the center will have to be managed by the infrastructure manager and not by one of the operators. Initially, there will be a building and the center will be modular. Our workshop should have the capacity to receive at least twenty oars. Later, a second building may be added. Today, nothing is fixed. We carry out feasibility studies with different options.

Above all, we don’t want to become a maintenance operator, we just want to build the site. Maintenance may be carried out by an operator himself, or a manufacturer, or even a train rental company. We are also looking at whether it is possible for ROSCOs to be created in France (rolling stock rental companies, editor’s note). The ROSCOs surely represent one of the keys to developing competition in the future.

We are not the only ones looking for solutions to remove barriers. This is also the case, for example, of Getlink, which wishes to create a Rosco to rent trains to operators. This is also what we were told in the plea signed at the end of February at the European rail summit, aimed at developing modal shift. Being able to provide a maintenance center goes in this direction.

VRT: What is your timetable and what is the planned investment?
VS. : Our maintenance site should be available in 2026 because it takes time to acquire the land, follow the environmental procedure, finalize the design, launch the calls for tenders for the construction, and then carry out the building work as well as those of connection to the network (these can only be carried out by the Network, which must include it in the programming of its worksites).

The investment will be around 80 million euros. We would like to find partners. For now, we are alone.

We are discussing with all the operators who clearly underline the difficulty of coming to serve the west of France without having a maintenance center. And we talk to investors who are interested because they see that the French market is attractive even if the tolls are more expensive.

We take a risk but we are convinced that there are many potential users, that there is a market. If we want to double rail traffic, we need to be able to buy equipment and access maintenance sites. All signals are green. It is also to be hoped that the State will put more money into the renovation of the network. Because the trains must run on railways in better condition.

VRT: How many operators do you expect in Tours-Bordeaux?

H.LC.: I don’t think we can see 5 or 6 operators running on this line. Realistically, I think only one operator (in addition to the SNCF) could serve our line. When we look closely at what happened in Italy, we see that only NTV dared to come by proposing a fairly substantial transport plan. It should be the same on our line: the operator who will come should offer a fairly substantial offer. We can also consider the arrival of an operator offering seasonal services like those launched by Thalys between Brussels and Bordeaux. Or even imagine lines to the ski resorts of the Pyrenees.

VRT: The SNCF has reduced its services and complains of losing money on this line. Is this a risk for Lisea?
In 2017, 2018 and 2019, SNCF increased its offer and announced an increase in passenger traffic. So this link was working fine. Then there was the health crisis in 2020 and 2021. Today, market signs show that when we are fully out of the health crisis, traffic will return. The number of round trips is currently a little down. But we are convinced that the SNCF will increase its frequencies. Paris-Bordeaux is the second busiest line in France

Travel habits will change with teleworking. But what matters is aggregate demand. Experts believe that the overall demand for mobility will continue to increase in the long term.

We are not worried because, although we assume the full traffic risk, we have a long concession. There are times when there is less traffic. We continue to work with SNCF Réseau but also with SNCF Voyageurs to make the line more efficient. The potential is significant.

We are also interested in feedback with theAGIFI (French Association of Independent Infrastructure Managers) and SNCF Réseau. We have thus developed tools on infrastructure data and use artificial intelligence to better understand the elements of the infrastructure and its behavior after maintenance operations, with the aim of being more efficient and to make savings.

VRT: Do you offer lower tolls to new operators who would like to serve Tours-Bordeaux?

HLC: Yes. Our prices are published in the network reference document, which is validated by SNCF Réseau. We also plan to further reduce these toll charges by just over 20% for new operators because there is a real start-up cost.

SNCF Voyageurs will also be able to benefit from it if, tomorrow, one of its entities decides to launch a new service. For example, if Eurostar offers a service between Bordeaux and London, the company will benefit from this start-up aid not only from Lisea, but also from that of Getlink and SNCF Réseau, each for the section it manages.

Interview by Marie-Hélène Poingt

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“Opening up to competition only benefits incumbent rail operators” – Ville, Rail et Transports

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