The French regions seeking €100 billion for the railways

A new deal for the country’s rail infrastructure

As we discovered last time, Belgium has an ambitious plan to modernise its railway network, both for passenger and freight transport. Has it inspired the French government to do something similar? That’s what a column by a group of 15 regional leaders from across the country co-author in the newspaper Le Monde. In it, these men and women from across the political spectrum called on the national government to launch a new railway deal worth €100 billion between 2023 and 2033. That’s the plan we’ll be talking about today.

The first thing the article reveals is that the people running the French regions have definitely understood that the modernisation of the French railway network isn’t a political question but rather an absolute necessity. Thus, among the signees, you’ll find Right-wing stalwarts like Xavier Bertrand (president of the Hauts-de-France region), Valérie Pécresse (president of the Ile-de-France region) and Laurent Wauquiez (president of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region) and socialists like Carole Delga (president of the Occitanie Regional Council) and François Bonneau (president of the Centre Val-de-Loire region). Even more interestingly, the list of signees also revealed that the country’s overseas territories and Corsica were just as interested in the railways as metropolitan regions. So you’ll also find Huguette Bello (president of the Réunion region), Gilles Simeoni (president of the Executive Council of the Corsican regional authorities) and Ary Chalus (president of the Guadeloupe region).

In the context of the effects of fossil fuels (slowly) being phased out, the drastic effects of the Ukraine war on the global economy and climate change, this astonishing coalition of politicians argue that the train ‘responds directly to concerns over day-to-day mobility, purchasing power and life both in cities and in the countryside’. It’s a statement that we clearly agree with here at Midnight Trains. Because as this article reminds us, France has one of the densest networks in Europe and the world. Every day, 8,000 regional trains and 6,200 Transilien and RER trains carry around 13 million passengers. These figures could evidently rise as long as infrastructure and trains are brought up-to-date.

While France clearly has lots of savoir-faire when it comes to the railways, but the lines themselves are ageing fast. And if the government wants to continue exporting this technology, as it did in South Korea with the KTX, a very close cousin of the French TGV, it has to act. But even with the best will in the world and the support of several French regions (of all political persuasions), modernisation would require spending lots of money. That’s why the 15 politicians behind this article aren’t only calling for the government to act, they’re also asking for a specific amount of money: se trouvant derrière cette tribune n’appellent pas seulement le gouvernement à agir, ils lui demandent une somme concrète : €100 billion over a decade, or €10 billion per year between 2023 and 2033.

But this wasn’t a symbolic number. It’s what Jean-Pierre Farandou, the boss of SNCF, reckons it’s necessary to increase the share of journeys taken by train from 10 percent to 20 percent and help make France’s transport sector better for the planet. According to him, these sums would allow the country to implement various initiatives that would help achieve this. These would include creating metropolitan RER systems in 13 major French cities, several new high-speed lines, doubling the capacity for freight transport and reducing the number of signal boxes through centralisation. The regional leaders added in their piece that the money could also be used to invest in hydrogen trains and in creating a ticketing system that would allow people to hop between different modes of transport.

But rather than just modernising an existing form of transport, the signees see a ‘new railway deal’ as a matter of huge ecological, economic, social, industrial, technological and historical importance. They defend the idea that the French railway network is a common good and a way of both reducing the environmental impact of transports and inspiring creativity in railway businesses. Add to that the importance of creating better connections between the regions and boosting the development of regions with specific difficulties like the overseas territories and Corsica. Finally, they make the point that the modernisation they’re calling for is necessary so France can compete with its neighbours. They point out that the Belgians aren’t the only ones to come across rather far-sighted: the Germans are also planning to invest €90 billion in their railway sector, and the Italians a massive €180 billion.

To sum up, there’s no need to share the political views of the leaders who launched this call for government investment in the railways. Rather, what they say seems almost self-evident: creating a modern, well-organised, well-maintained railway system will in turn help create a better connected planet – and one where we can feel much more optimistic about the future of the environment. How could you disagree with that?

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