Take a look at the trains that will modernize France’s rail fleet and prepare the national provider to take on its first-ever competitors.
While high-speed trains are struggling to gain a foothold in some parts of the world (looking at you, California), France’s superfast rail services are looking at a very active, more competitive future.
Just this month, national carrier SNCF launched the prototype for a brand new TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) model, which will be cheaper and require less fuel than existing engines. Due to start service in 2023, these new trains will ultimately form part of an entirely new 100-train fleet.
That will give France the most modern high-speed fleet in the world, and the trains will arrive during a critical period for the country’s rail systems. In 2021, France will be trying something completely new with its high-speed services. For the first time, rival companies will be allowed to vie with SNCF, competing with the national provider on major routes.
The real change, however, is cost. These new trains will be 20 percent cheaper than previous models, a snip at €25 million ($28.4 million) per train, instead of the current €30 million. At the same time, they will consume 20 percent less energy, with most of the savings coming from a regenerative braking system that channels more of the train’s braking energy back into electricity to power the train.
These cost reductions aren’t just a good thing in general; they’re arguably essential, and should help SNCF survive the introduction of high-speed competition in 2021. Since 1937, SNCF has enjoyed a monopoly on all French rail services, a state of affairs allowed because rail travel is a public service. This situation has been gradually changing since 1997, when SNCF was divided into one company that manages transit, and another that manages tracks. Starting in 2021, other companies will be allowed to run competing high-speed services. Regular regional train services will remain monopolies, but regions will be allowed to decide for themselves which train company they would like to grant the monopoly to, meaning that SNCF may not be the company that’s chosen.
SNCF, meanwhile, has a head start to prepare for this change, and it’s taking full advantage. In 2013, it launched Ouigo, a cheaper high-speed alternative to its regular TGV services that uses suburban stations, where platform fees are lower. The new services were a game changer in a country where the TGV was developing a reputation as transit primarily for the wealthy. Last year, SNCF’s regular TGV service also got a rebrand, as a now clearly separate service called InOui. It’s not a great name—it sounds a lot like ennui, that French term whose meaning vacillates between boredom and despair—but the objective is clear enough. Passengers planning a high-speed journey can now clearly differentiate between the cheaper option and the more convenient one, and can straightforwardly ask themselves “Shall we take a Ouigo or an InOui?”
This is a period of rapid change for French rail, so it’s doubly impressive that the country has committed to revamping its TGV service. New trains aren’t the sum total of this: The country further expanded its high-speed network last autumn, and a new line shadowing the Mediterranean coast is currently under construction, too.
It isn’t presently clear exactly which company will run high-speed services where in the near future, but the country’s new trains and new routes show that confidence in high-speed rail is still running strong.