Global Observer

In Paris, high-speed trains go low-cost

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PARIS -- A line of French trains that broke a speed record in 2007 is setting a new record -- for low-priced tickets that cost a tenth of the regular fare.

PARIS -- Exploring France's countryside from the comfort of the world's fastest conventional train is about to get a little easier -- and cheaper.

The French national train network, SNCF, has unveiled its new low-cost high-speed train dubbed Ouigo last month, with service starting April 2. In just over three hours, travelers can go from the Paris region to Marseille for as little as ten euros in a seat that could normally cost ten times as much.

With tickets maxing out at 85 during high-traffic periods and Ouigo guaranteeing that a quarter of the seats per train will be available under 25 euros, the train is a global first in low-cost rail, and the latest in an overhaul for French transportation that could be preparing the industry for some big changes in the E.U.

While budget airlines seem old hat -- Southwest Airlines has been flying in the U.S. since 1971 and Ryanair in Europe since 1999 -- budget trains, especially high-speed ones, are a novelty. Ouigo trains are modified TGVs (train à grande vitesse), SNCF's high-speed service that set the record in 2007 for the fastest train in the world at 357 mph. While SNCF has enjoyed exclusive access to French railways, deregulation has eroded this monopoly slightly over the years, with the first non-SNCF trains running on limited international TGV lines in 2011. The deregulated lines welcomed trains linking Paris to Milan through Italy's Trenitalia, for example. Things could change for the rest of the rails, however, if the European Commission has its way.

The push for low-cost seems like a preemptive attack, or at least a defensive strategy against further deregulation and upcoming competition on the more numerous domestic TGV tracks in France, where currently only SNCF trains run.

The Commission is proposing legislation that potentially could liberate European railways, meaning German and Italian trains could run on any regional tracks alongside French trains as early as December 2019, according to a recent report in French financial newspaper, Les Echos.

The company, however, insists it's not worried about deregulation. "SNCF has a long tradition of innovation to serve the greatest number of people possible and we never waited for competition to create new transport solutions," Guillaume Pepy, president of the SNCF, said in a press release.

A spokesman from the SNCF told SmartPlanet that pricier German and Spanish trains aren't a concern for the French company and that it introduced Ouigo to appeal to those who would otherwise travel by car. "We are the first to do this in the whole world, to have low cost on the railways. Our goal is to be in competition with the roadways," he insisted.

Ouigo services major cities like Montpellier and Avignon in the southeast, a region that represents 35% of all TGV traffic in France. The schedule will include 62 weekly trips and has generated 100 jobs in France while cutting out some middlemen, as tickets can only be purchased online.

While the ten euro price tag will attract many (plus children will ride for 5 euros), the new budget options come with their own hidden costs. For example, extra baggage and electrical outlets are for sale, as well, while the café car has been removed to increase seating capacity by nearly 20% from a standard TGV.

But the spokesperson for SNCF said that the Ouigo trains are essentially up to snuff with every other TGV train. "Ouigo has fewer services but it's still high speed, with all of the quality, and the security of SNCF," he said. "We got rid of first class, but it's still as comfortable as any second-class TGV," he said.

Also the Ouigo train, while serving major stations in Lyon and Marseille, does not actually stop in Paris. Instead the stop is located outside the city in Marne-la-Vallée, near Disneyland Paris, a 30-40 minute train ride from the city center. These decentralized train stations are cheaper to pull into, and also easier since central stations are often saturated with traffic. Those dreaming of soaring 19th century vaulted Parisian train stations can forget about it.  For the moment, at least.

Having just launched, SNCF will wait until the results roll in to set a calendar for expansion.  "We don't launch new services just for fun, but if the trains don't fill up, we won't look to develop it further," the spokesman said. "If it's something that interests travelers and responds to their needs, then we can absolutely imagine other routes," he said.

Photo: SNCF

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Bryan Pirolli

Correspondent (Paris)

Bryan Pirolli has worked for Conde Nast and Travel+Leisure and has written for EuroCheapo.com and Concierge.com. He holds a degree from New York University and is currently studying at the Sorbonne. He is based in Paris, France. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure