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Rail co-op uses disused SNCF train lines to reconnect French cities

The family run co-operative, Railcoop, started with freight stock and is now renovating a fleet of ex-TER passenger trains to resurrect direct services between big cities

Train tracks at Lyon station

Planned Lyon (pictured) to Bordeaux direct passenger service was abandoned by SNCF in 2014 Pic: Sander van der Werf /Shutterstock

Railcoop, a railway cooperative based in the Lot, started its first freight route last November, running between Decazeville-Viviez (Aveyron) and Toulouse-St-Jory, across an area with few road and rail connections. 

A Bordeaux-Lyon passenger service is now on course for launch in December. 

The aim is to offer long-distance rail travel with trains running at the speed of regional TERs.

The company is led by a brother and sister, after the former, civil engineer Nicolas Debaisieux, left city life to settle in Carjac, a small Lot town.

There he found a group of people interested in projects combining green principles with social benefits, and it led to the idea of a rail co-operative to revitalise disused lines.

Rebuilding confidence in rail freight

The freight line provides a sustainable transport link between Toulouse, home to Airbus, and the Lot Valley, a hub of aeronautical-component manufacture. 

Railcoop’s president, Dominique Guerrée, who has devoted his career to the development of co-operative business models, said its success to date has hinged on daily departures, which provide an innovative shuttle service guaranteeing regular deliveries and scrap collection.

 “Ensuring a constant service is crucial in the bid to regain confidence in rail transport as, over the years, companies have tended to opt for more flexible (and less costly) road haulage solutions,” he said.

Railcoop’s president, Dominique Guerrée. Photo credit: Mike Westwood

Transition to greener fuel

However, growing environmental concerns have seen a number of companies express an interest in integrating the co-operative’s rail transport solutions into existing supply chains. 

Current rolling stock is comprised of two rented Deutsche Bahn (DB) locomotives, which operate on the freight line with 24 R26-type covered wagons in tow. 

The locomotives are diesel-powered, but the impact on the environment is still significantly less than by road, and Railcoop envisages a transition to bio-methane fuel in future with the delivery of customised new-build engines.

Passenger services resurrected 

A fleet of secondhand X72500 passenger trains (ex-TER) will be entering the workshop for retrofitting next month and will be operational for the launch of three passenger services on December 11.

Direct services will link Lyon with the terminuses of Bordeaux, Montluçon and Limoges. 

The direct Lyon-Bordeaux service, which was abandoned by SNCF in 2014, will operate twice-daily and cost around €37-€40 for a journey of seven hours and 30 minutes. It is the cost of a car-share trip between the two cities.  

Locally sourced food will be served.

Alexandra Debaisieux, Railcoop’s deputy managing director, previously told The Connexion: “The lines are still maintained and used by SNCF but only for local services. There is no train between the two large cities. The only option is to wait for a connection. 

Our trains will be comfortable, with separate carriages for those who want to work quietly using Wi-Fi and those who are travelling in groups. Each will have a goods wagon, so people can load trunks, suitcases, surfboards, skis or bicycles without problems.”

The Montluçon train will provide an early-morning commuter solution that does not currently exist.

The lines are discontinued SNCF network lines, with Railcoop services regarded as complementary elements in the rail transport economy. 

Six other lines are planned to open by 2026, also incorporating night trains with sleeper carriages.

Towns want trains for economic growth

Railcoop is already working in partnership with various local authorities, including Région Occitanie and Auvergne Rhône-Alpes, which see the reopening of former SNCF lines as a means of revitalising their communities and boosting the business and tourism sectors. 

“Local mayors are calling us into meetings on a regular basis, asking us to get their cities back on the map,” said Mr Guerrée.

The co-operative is proud of its strong social underpinning. 

Mr Guerrée explained that the choice of Decazeville-Viviez as a freight hub was not just because of its proximity to Railcoop’s head office at Figeac – it was also an excellent opportunity to help revitalise Decazeville, a former centre of mining and steel production. 

The town has never recovered economically from the pit and foundry closures, but local industry representatives view the freight line as a chance to innovate along different lines.

Social activists are investing in venture

Railcoop’s philosophy is also influenced by the founding tenets of the International Cooperative Alliance, notably the pooling of information and resources with other co-operatives and community organisations.

There is even a local Railcoop discussion group – a railway circle of amateurs and experts dedicated to providing logistical solutions.

“No other functioning rail co-ops exist in the European Union, but we are looking to work with others in future once they are up and running,” said Mr Guerrée.

The opportunity to invest in the company has not been lost on social activists and those wishing to rethink the economy and explore new transport solutions. 

Railcoop’s latest shareholder figures stand at around 11,000, with many enticed not just by the return on investment, but the chance to act for change.

In an exhortation to English-speaking residents, Mr Guerrée said: “It is an excellent way to invest in French society, to make a difference, and you need not be a French citizen.”

The company is growing in other ways too with an expected increase from 30 to 40 employees imminent.

Find out more at railcoop.fr

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