Since July, you may have heard the whistle of Spanish trains in Lyon-Saint-Exupéry or Marseille Saint-Charles. These purple and white high-speed trains are operated by Renfe, the Spanish national operator, which is expanding into the French market with two lines: one from Madrid to Marseille in seven and a half hours, another from Barcelona to Lyon in five.
While these travel times may seem slow for a TGV, or AVE as they call them in Spain, this is because the trains stop at many of the smaller stations on the way, offering tickets for as little as €9 between stations, or for €29 for the full route.
For now, these trains operate only on Mondays and Fridays, however from September there will be daily round trips, with 28 trains each week over the two lines.
Rivals to SNCF?
It is somewhat rare for the French rail operator SNCF, which has long enjoyed a dominant position in France, to brook a rival on its tracks. There are some exceptions, however, such as Trenitalia, which has operated between Paris and Milan since 2011.
Since 2018, France has been in line with European law, introducing the ‘New Rail Pact’, which ensures that national passenger transport services are open markets.
Yet, despite this new competition rail users should not expect a decrease in prices. The French market may want low-cost trains, but the industry’s own costs are rising. Ticket prices increased by 5% in 2023 and will continue to rise in line with rail toll prices which are themselves set to increase by another 8% in 2024.
Regardless, with 100,000 tickets sold, Renfe has made rapid progress into the tight French market and still has its eye on a greater prize.
Rivals to Eurostar?
Since 2019, Renfe has declared its ambition to operate a line from London to Madrid, Barcelona and Lisbon. In 2021, the company again stated its intent “to compete with Eurostar” - but is this just a pipe dream?
Eurostar, in part owned by the SNCF, is so far the only operator to have run trains through the tunnel with a fast travel time of two hours and 15 minutes. Yet there is potential to double rail traffic.
Even in 2018, after its own attempt to start a new line failed, Channel Tunnel operator Getlink (ex-Eurotunnel) released a statement that “Getlink welcome any initiative to increase high speed passenger traffic through the Tunnel – from the current operator or potential new entrants.”
And new entrants are emerging. The British operator Mobico, formerly National Express, in conjunction with French train manufacturer Alstom, is hoping to create a new service under the Channel by 2025. According to the Financial Times, their London-Paris service would run under the name Evolyn, however, talks are understood to be in early stages.
Eurostar itself has been struggling in the aftermath of Covid and Brexit, posting pre-tax losses of £305m for year ending 31 December 2021 and ending stops at Ebbsfleet and Ashford as well as Disneyland. It still clings on to hope, declaring pre tax profits of £61m for year ending 31 December 2022 and has plans to double passenger numbers to 30 million by 2030. Eurostar has released no comment on any potential rival line.
“Eurostar is very good but it suffers from not having competition,” said Jacques Gounon, chief executive of Getlink prior to his company’s own failed attempt to open a rival line. Though this time, perhaps as early as 2025 there will also be Spanish or French trains whistling in London.