How opening up the railways has transformed the industry

Episode 3 – The arrival of Open Access

After two previous editions on the opening up of the British rail network and that of the freight sector in France, now we will turn our attention to international train travel in France. And in the same way the industry is divided in two distinct parts, we’ll tackle the subject in two distinct stages too. We’ll start today by looking at the model known as Open Access.

The idea of opening up passenger rail transport in Europe isn’t a new one. The first discussions between the member states of the European Union in fact took place in the 1970s. Far from being driven by environmental motives, European leaders were considering how best to prop up the rail sector when faced with the explosion in air transport. A Europe-wide transport policy was put in place with the aim of creating a large, open rail market.

But it took 37 years for this to become reality. As we all know, the EU isn’t the speediest when it comes to implementing policy. And that’s largely due to the historic discrepancies between its 27 members. In 2007 the third rail legislation package was adopted, the first two having concerned the liberalisation of freight (which we spoke about last week). And as was the case for the latter, it was once again the international lines that were implicated first. From 2010, these were opened up to competition through a model known as Open Access.

As the name suggests, this policy means that any rail business can make a request with operators to be given timetable slots. On the condition, of course, that it has already gained an official rail licence, that its trains meet all regulatory codes, that its staff are officially certified, and that all safety and security checks have been met. This must also be done without any public subsidies.

All over Europe, entrepreneurs like NTV, LEO Express and Connex launched into the international rail market, quickly followed by certain countries’ historical operators. Not to mention Thello, whose rapid ascent in the French rail market we’ve already spoken about in our series on the sleeper services that have vanished in recent years. Not, also, that Eurostar had already been running services between France, the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands since 1994.

The most recent set of rail reforms was adopted in 2016, after three long years of negotiations between member states. And for good reason: national rail transport is a sensitive topic in many countries. Allowing private companies to compete with the likes of SNCF in France (which had run all rail services since January 1 1938) was clearly a controversial move. Opening up the market wasn’t going to happen without anyone kicking up a fuss.

As of 2019, France and its individual regions can put out public callouts for private or public operators to run their TER (Transport Express Régional) lines – something we’ll be focusing on next week. Today’s subject is the high-speed lines. Since December 2020, SNCF has effectively lost its monopoly on these, including on the most profitable Paris-Lyon line.

An Open Access model was adopted for the high-speed lines. And it was Trenitalia, the historic Italian operator, which first jumped at the opportunity, launching two daily return trips between Paris and Milan (via Lyon) in 2021. Thus it became a direct competitor to SNCF , and on April 5 2022 it even launched a shorter Paris-Lyon trip too, aiming for five of these journeys to take place a day. Which shows that, despite those Thello lines having stopped, the Italian firm still always intended to expand its share of the French market.

But this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for SNCF. SNCF Réseau, which looks after the maintenance of the French rail network, even said it would bring greater advantages for its users. More trains means more possibilities and better service for passengers, and it can also help revitalise the cities and towns along the route. Above all, it’s a good way to promote rail as a means of getting around, which is great news for the planet.

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