Line Intercités Lyon-Nantes, Roanne (Loire, June 22, 2018.
Line Intercités Lyon-Nantes, in Roanne (Loire, June 22, 2018. Pierre GLEIZES / REA / Pierre GLEIZES / REA

We expected the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (PACA) region, it will ultimately be the state that will wipe the plaster of opening to rail competition. The government unveiled on Wednesday, January 9, the publication of a "Pre-information notice" for the competition of the lines Intercités Nantes-Bordeaux and Nantes-Lyon, two of the seven lines that are under its responsibility.

In early 2020, the Ministry of Transport will launch a call for tenders to put in competition SNCF Mobilités, the operator of these two lines carrying respectively 686,000 passengers (Nantes-Bordeaux) and 387,000 passengers (Nantes-Lyon) per year, or about 1 million people each year. The holder of this contract will be chosen theoretically in 2021 and will start its operations in 2022.

Read also SNCF: what does opening to competition mean?

The Ministry of Transport has chosen to test the opening of competition with these two sections, because they will be completely renovated by 2022 and will have a completely renewed equipment. "Without that, few people would have been interested in this market", we recognize the ministry. In addition, the two lines are linked because their equipment is managed by the same maintenance center.

Many groups should look into this call for tenders

"With regard to the seven remaining equilibrium train lines in the territory (including two night train lines), of which the State will remain the organizing authority, they will be the subject of a renewal or modernization of their equipment. in the coming years, it would not be appropriate for the proper functioning of these lines to proceed to competition during the same period ", says the Ministry of Transport.

Many groups should look into this tender for the moment rather modest. Between major competing public groups, such as Trenitalia or Deutsche Bahn, semi-public groups, such as Transdev in France, or private companies such as Flixtrain or other Central European players (Leo Express, RegioJet, etc.), this first opening French market will whet appetites.

For the daily operation of these two lines, the State now pays some 25 million euros of equilibrium subsidy to SNCF (sums essentially punctuated on the results of the TGV branch) when their turnover is estimated at around € 30 million a year. "These are equilibrium trains of the territory whose revenues do not cover operations today", says one in the public group.

An important test

"Whoever wins the tender, judge a good connoisseur of the sector, will probably be the one that will offer the smallest possible equilibrium subsidy to the state. " At the Ministry of Transport, the goal is simple: "We do not try to get out the outgoing, the goal is not to leave the SNCF", it was said. "It will be, in a way," Let the best win! "

"We will do everything to maintain the management of these lines"says Guillaume Pepy, the head of the national operator, who believes that the implementation of reforms related to the railway law will reduce the "Cost differential" (organization, social regime, etc.) between the public group and its two-thirds competitors. In addition, Rachel Picard, the patron of Voyages SNCF, has planned to review in the coming months the Intercités model to reduce their operating deficit. "Even without the competition, we would have done it", she says.

Read also Guillaume Pepy: "The only way forward is to face the reality of competition"

"We will seriously study this call for tenders for these trains of balance of the territory, with new rolling stock, it is a good point, we already judge within a competing group. It will however be necessary for the SNCF to provide the maintenance data and the maintenance logs, this is the current subject of discussions concerning the rail data decree. "

For the State, this test will be particularly important, because in fact, it should be the first time that a competing operator will enter significantly in rail passenger transport in France. Thello, a subsidiary of Trenitalia, already operates night trains on the Marseille-Milan line, but on a modest scale.

From December 2020, railways will theoretically be able to freely offer their services on the high-speed lines of the French network

In the calendar opening the market to competition, the regions can, from 2019, call for the management of TER, to private operators, but none is rushing to find a replacement to the SNCF. The PACA region surveyed potential competitors by launching a call for expressions of interest, which gathered a dozen responses. Hauts-de-France, the Grand-Est, Normandy, Burgundy-Franche-Comté, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and the Pays de la Loire are also interested, but no procedure has been launched.

Furthermore, from December 2020, railways will theoretically be able to offer their services on the high-speed lines of the French network in an unrestricted way. It will be totally at their expense and with their own equipment, investments that can amount to tens, even hundreds, of millions of euros just to have trains, approved for the national network, crews and then find a niche to differentiate yourself from the public group. Today, in high speed, SNCF covers the entire market through its low-cost TGV Ouigo and its more upscale offer InYes.

Read also What is the opening of the rail to the competition?

Some operators will probably risk it, like the Spanish company Ilsa, a subsidiary of the airline Air Nostrum (Iberia group), which announced the upcoming opening of a Madrid-Barcelona-Montpellier route to compete with TGV operated in partnership between Renfe and SNCF.

In fact, these investments, more substantial, should be much more remunerative, and therefore attract investment funds, than operations related to tenders from the state and regions (which make their equipment available). For the moment, the only convincing example of a private success after the liberalization of the railway sector came from Italy, where the private company Italo managed to shake up Trenitalia.

Philippe Jacqué

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