Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
While high-speed trains are struggling to gain a foothold in some parts of the world (looking at you, California), France’s superfast rail services are looking at a very active, more competitive future.
Just this month, national carrier SNCF launched the prototype for a brand new TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) model, which will be cheaper and require less energy than existing engines. Due to start service in 2023, these new trains will ultimately form part of an entirely new 100-train fleet.
That will give France the most modern high-speed fleet in the world, and the trains will arrive during a critical period for the country’s rail systems. In 2021, France will be trying something completely new with its high-speed services. For the first time, rival companies will be allowed to vie with SNCF, competing with the national provider on major routes.
SNCF’s new trains should help it meet the challenge posed by new competitors. Simply called the TGV 2020, these trains offer some clear improvements, as illustrated in the video above. For a start, the train’s shorter engine (59 feet instead of the current 72) opens up as much as 20 percent more space for passengers (740, as opposed to the current 556), while also delivering a high maximum speed of 220 miles per hour.
In its double-decker carriages, moving around by wheelchair will be far smoother, thanks to platforms that can lift and rotate at the end of each wagon. Elements inside the train cars will be highly modular, allowing for different configurations of seating and amenities. Windows will be 10 percent larger, while the buffet car is now a double-height affair, overlooked by galleried table seating. Meanwhile, 97 percent of the materials used in the train are recyclable.
The real change, however, is cost. These new trains will be 20 percent cheaper than previous models, a snip at €25 million ($28.4 million) per train, instead of the current €30 million. At the same time, they will consume 20 percent less energy, with most of the savings coming from a regenerative braking system that channels more of the train’s braking energy back into electricity to power the train.
These cost reductions aren’t just a good thing in general; they’re arguably essential, and should help SNCF survive the introduction of high-speed competition in 2021. Since 1937, SNCF has enjoyed a monopoly on all French rail services, a state of affairs allowed because rail travel is a public service. This situation has been gradually changing since 1997, when SNCF was divided into one company that manages transit, and another that manages tracks. Starting in 2021, other companies will be allowed to run competing high-speed services. Regular regional train services will remain monopolies, but regions will be allowed to decide for themselves which train company they would like to grant the monopoly to, meaning that SNCF may not be the company that’s chosen.
That doesn’t necessarily mean an end to SNCF’s dominance of high-speed rail. As things stand, most TGV lines don’t turn a profit but are made feasible by subsidies, paid by a state that clearly sees the economic advantages of an extensive high-speed network. Competitors would either need to make substantial savings on operational costs, or limit themselves to the most lucrative connections, such as the profit-making Paris to Lyon route.
SNCF, meanwhile, has a head start to prepare for this change, and it’s taking full advantage. In 2013, it launched Ouigo, a cheaper high-speed alternative to its regular TGV services that uses suburban stations, where platform fees are lower. The new services were a game changer in a country where the TGV was developing a reputation as transit primarily for the wealthy. Last year, SNCF’s regular TGV service also got a rebrand, as a now clearly separate service called InOui. It’s not a great name—it sounds a lot like ennui, that French term whose meaning vacillates between boredom and despair—but the objective is clear enough. Passengers planning a high-speed journey can now clearly differentiate between the cheaper option and the more convenient one, and can straightforwardly ask themselves “Shall we take a Ouigo or an InOui?”
This is a period of rapid change for French rail, so it’s doubly impressive that the country has committed to revamping its TGV service. New trains aren’t the sum total of this: The country further expanded its high-speed network last autumn, and a new line shadowing the Mediterranean coast is currently under construction, too.
It isn’t presently clear exactly which company will run high-speed services where in the near future, but the country’s new trains and new routes show that confidence in high-speed rail is still running strong.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said TGV 2020 trains will use less fuel than their predecessors. The trains, which are electric, will use less energy, but do not use fuel.