Renfe’s entry into the French railway sector

More change on the rails

Another development in the French railway industry. After the arrival of Trenitalia on the Paris-Lyon line at the end of 2021, this time Renfe – the historic Spanish operator – is also making moves in France, with new routes between Madrid and Marseille, and Barcelona and Lyon. Having got the green light from EPSF, the organisation that looks after safety on the French railway network, the company has test-run services on these two lines already. Its AVE, the equivalent of France’s TGV, were launched on January 16 between the ca and Lyon, and the next day between the Spanish capital and Marseille. This was necessary to check that these Spanish high-speed trains would work on French infrastructure and to train staff on board. As for the rolling stock, the Spanish business will start off using its existing S-100, before moving onto some S-106, from the manufacturer Talgo, starting from a still-to-be-confirmed date.

This strategic move from Renfe won’t surprise train buffs. While in Spain the operator must compete with new operators like Iryo and Ouigo, the new French services are in fact a revival of two lines it co-ran with SNCF from 2013. The latter called an end to this partnership in December 2022, saying that the number of passengers didn’t justify the number of journeys along this route. Add to that the difficulty of keeping up such a collaboration while Ouigo España was launching new journeys between Madrid and Barcelona.

So Renfe is striking out along these two international routes, where low-cost flights are the main competition. According to the railway operator, the trains could be up and running by the summer or even spring. To start with, there will apparently be six return journeys per week. The Spanish firm hasn’t said anything about how much the trips will cost.

As it happens, Renfe’s main objective in expanding into France doesn’t relate to the south at all. The operator hasn’t been shy about its intention to offer Paris-Lyon trips, this being the most popular and profitable stretch of the French railway network. But this will take quite a long time, there being a lot of hurdles to go through to get permission to run trains along this route. The S-100 carriages are not authorised to travel under TVM300 – the cab signalling system along the Paris-Lyon line – because of electromagnetic disturbances. By the time Renfe will have its S-106 ready to run along the Paris route, the line will instead be kitted out with the ETCS (European Train Control System). The S-100 will be compatible with this too, it seems access to the capital will be very much possible. In the meantime, Renfe may be forced to kit out its trains with special equipment allowing it to pass from one system to another – a rather hefty investment.

As French newspaper Le Parisien reports, it seems that certain quarters in Spain are rather annoyed. “In France, you need to obtain safety certificates for certain specific lines, rather than for the entire network. We’ll continue to pursue the work necessary to operate all over France”, they quoted a source as saying. Renfe even suggested that “spokes were being put in its wheels” to slow down its arrival on the route between Paris and Lyon. Which was vehemently denied by SNCF Réseau, which says it will welcome Renfe “with open arms”. Regardless, the historic Spanish operator seems determined to not be held up and started to book timetable slots in summer 2022. With further delays of up to two years very much likely, the operator may start running Paris-Lyon journeys by summer 2024.

Despite the huge efforts of Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles, nothing will guarantee that its entrance into the French market will be a commercial success. In fact, according to France TV Info, Trenitalia’s Frecciarossa trains, which already run along the same route, are only 50 percent full on average and have only carried a little over a million passengers since the Italian operator crossed swords with SNCF. That’s a very small proportion of the 45 to 50 million people who travel along the route each year. The only thing that’s certain is that the battle between SNCF, Trenitalia and Renfe is far from over. We can only hope that it’s travellers who benefit in the end.

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