New ferries, flights, Eurostar competition: 9 French travel updates

Plus how SNCF is preparing for a record summer of rail travel and the dangerous habits to watch out for on French motorways

We look at this week's changes in travel
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1. P&O’s new hybrid ferry goes into service between Dover and Calais

P&O Ferries’ long-anticipated new ship Pioneer has finally started Channel crossings, having been in the pipeline since 2019.

It is billed as the world's largest hybrid and double-ended ferry and promises to reduce carbon emissions by 40%.

Some of this saving is a result of the fact, with two bridges, it does not need to turn around in port, unlike traditional Channel ferries.

P&O Ferries has previously said this alone would save seven minutes and a sixth of the total fuel burn per crossing, allowing it to reduce speed during the journey while still sticking to the same timetables.

Read more: Last train on UK-Paris link, new hybrid ferry: 8 French travel updates

The ship officially entered service on Monday (June 19) and operates with diesel generators and electric battery power.

The BBC reports that the latter is “equivalent to 2.3 million AA batteries”.

A second hybrid ship, named Liberté, is due to join Pioneer on the Dover-Calais route around the end of October.

It is hoped that both ships could be transformed into fully electric ferries when the charging infrastructure is available at Dover and Calais ports.

Peter Hebblethwaite, CEO of P&O Ferries, said: “For the millions of passengers who sail with P&O Ferries between the UK and France, our two ultra-modern vessels being introduced this year will deliver a fantastic travel experience.

“We are determined to make P&O Ferries the best ferry company in Europe. That means: the best ships, the best routes, and the best value for our customers.”

Read more: French MPs vote to give cross-Channel ferry workers a minimum wage

2. Eurostar competition could drive down ticket prices, UK government suggests

There has been renewed discussion in the UK about challenging Eurostar’s monopoly on high-speed rail services through the Channel Tunnel.

Rail minister Huw Merriman said the Department for Transport was having “conversations” about how to use spare capacity on the lines more effectively, reports the Independent.

Encouraging other companies to compete could drive down fares, the UK government hopes. These have shot up in recent months as Eurostar starts to repay loans taken out during the Covid crisis.

Mr Merriman told the transport select committee on Wednesday (June 21): “The only way we're actually going to bring prices down, get more people on, it's getting more operators on there. And I think that's my ambition for it.”

He added: “The difficulty is it's not just down to this country because obviously it's a route that goes abroad, but we are looking to set out some steps as to what we actually see is possible with that line because there is a lot more space on it.”

Read more: Flights chaos, Channel Tunnel capacity boost: 8 French travel updates

Eurostar is currently the only company offering a passenger rail service through the Channel Tunnel and has never had a competitor since it started service in 1994.

Last year it was widely reported that Getlink (formerly Eurotunnel) was hoping to acquire 10 new high-speed trains to lease to new operators.

Read more: Getlink plans to rival Eurostar with cross-Channel services

However, border bureaucracy, physical capacity constraints at St Pancras station, and the complexity of using the undersea tunnel are among the obstacles which still need to be worked through.

3. 50% of train tickets still available to popular summer destinations

Earlier this month we reported that state rail operator SNCF was predicting another bumper summer for train travel, with early bookings intimating it may beat last year’s record of more than 23 million passengers on TGV and Intercity services.

Read more: Last train on UK-Paris link, new hybrid ferry: 8 French travel updates

TGV boss Alain Krakovitch confirmed this week that "500,000 more tickets had been sold by June 20 for July and August than last year".

However, he reassured holidaymakers that an extra 450,000 tickets are available this summer – the equivalent of 900 extra trains – made up by reinforcing existing services as well as offering new routes.

"Despite this early start, there are still 70% of tickets on sale for July-August and 50% for the most popular destinations,” he said.

These include the south-west, Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur, Brittany, Languedoc and Pays de la Loire.

The most popular dates are, as usual, the weekend of July 8 (the first weekend of the holiday season) and the July 14 bank holiday (in particular July 16).

Over the last few months, 20,000 seats a week have been added between Paris and Bordeaux, increasing capacity on the route this summer by the same amount as last year.

Meanwhile, from July 8 to August 26 a new service between Bordeaux and Frankfurt will be trialled, running every Saturday during this period.

TGV INOUI France-Spain is also offering a third daily return service between Paris and Barcelona during the summer period, and three new routes have been opened on the Ouigo service, with a daily offering between Paris and La Rochelle, a Paris-Brest return and another between Paris and Perpignan.

Read more: Boost for southern France as launch dates set for new ‘TGV’ routes

4. Speeding and middle-lane hogging remain dangerous habits on French motorways

French drivers continue to exceed motorway speed limits but are better at keeping their distance from the vehicles in front, a new survey has revealed.

Motorway operator Sanef released its annual study of autoroute driving habits this week (June 20), which found little improvement on previous years.

Indeed, 42% of vehicles travelled above the speed limit (130 km/h), compared with 38% in 2018, and the average speed observed was 128 km/h.

In the left-hand lane, the average speed for cars was 137km/h – 7km/h over the limit – and 3% of drivers observed on all lanes exceeded 150 km/h.

At night, on weekdays, more than half (51%) of drivers were found to be driving above 130km/h.

Read also: What should you do if your vehicle breaks down on a French motorway?

The authors of the study warned speed remains at its highest level since the creation of the Sanef survey in 2012.

The research was conducted at the end of March by filming traffic on an ordinary section (three lanes in open country) of the A13 motorway in Eure, in the Caen-Paris direction.

As well as speed, it also looked at safety distances, lane occupancy, use of indicators and overtaking on the hard shoulder.

While safety distances are improving (22% of vehicles were driving too close to the vehicle in front, compared with 29% in 2022), middle-lane hogging remains a persistent habit.

Some 39% of drivers stay in the middle lane when the right-hand lane is free, according to the study, and the figure rises during the day at weekends, when more than half of drivers abuse the middle lane.

Meanwhile, 28% of drivers do not signal when overtaking.

Read also: France prepares for first no-barrier toll motorway. How will it work?

5. Lyon and Marseille flights to Dubai offer Emirates alternative

Air France’s low-cost subsidiary Transavia is launching two new routes to Dubai this autumn, departing from Lyon and Marseille.

There will be three flights a week on both routes, due to start at the end of October.

The Lyon flights will depart on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, returning on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, from October 29.

From Marseille, meanwhile, the outbound flights are scheduled on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, returning on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, from October 31.

Read more: Reduce flights and impose curfews at French airports, urge campaigners

The new flights pit Transavia against Dubai-based Emirates, which has been offering daily flights to Lyon since February, and also serves Paris and Nice.

"We will be the only airline to operate flights to Dubai from Marseille this winter,” said Nicolas Hénin, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Transavia France.

“For our customers in Lyon, Dubai has never been so accessible thanks to our quality low-cost offer.”

Tickets from both destinations went on sale earlier this week (June 20).

Read more: Flight prices from France keep soaring. How can I find the best deals?

6. Hundreds of ‘health cabins’ could be introduced in French railway stations

Rail passengers could soon schedule a GP check-up while waiting for their train as part of SNCF's plans to introduce teleconsultation booths in stations.

Some 1,735 of these ‘health cabins’ could be rolled out in areas identified as medical deserts, where access to traditional healthcare is stretched.

Read more: Health cabins: virtual GP visits becoming more popular in France

The cabins have already been installed in various town halls across France, and even some Monoprix supermarkets.

SNCF Gares et connexion, the firm in charge of station management and development, published a call for tenders in February, reports

According to the notice, potential locations range from "floor space in station halls, on station forecourts or in station car parks, to premises inside stations".

It specifies that "all the proposed stations are located in priority intervention zones”.

While telemedicine will be the "main activity", secondary activities "that help to boost the main activity and optimise its economic model" may be authorised, it says, such as "paramedical services" or "product sales".

Health cabins – small booths with screens, loudspeakers and basic medical equipment such as stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs – offer digital contact with a doctor, known as télémédicine.

The doctor talks through the procedures to record vital signs and, once a diagnosis is reached, can write a prescription which is printed out in the cabin for the patient.

7. Refitted Ireland-France ferry offers spa experience aboard

Ferry crossings between Rosslare and Cherbourg are about to get a little more zen next week thanks to the addition of a newly refitted ship to the Stena Line fleet.

Following a major makeover at a shipyard in Poland, Stena Vision boasts an adults-only spa with jacuzzi, sauna and a range of beauty treatments.

The facility is pre-bookable at €15 for two hours, with treatments costing extra.

It includes a “spacious changing area”, as well as locker facilities, towels, robes and slippers.

The ship has 485 passenger cabins, 42 of which are pet-friendly. It will begin sailing to Cherbourg from June 30, operating alongside the Stena Horizon. Together, they will offer 12 sailings a week.

8. SNCF prepares trains for hot holiday weather

Applying anti-UV film on windows, painting train roofs white and renewing air conditioning units are just three of the measures unveiled by state rail operator SNCF this week to make holiday travel more comfortable.

The anti-UV film will be tested on approximately 20 TGV trains this summer, SNCF said, while it has also been busy with “preventative replacement of air-conditioning-related components, to avoid having to do so during the summer.” Tests have identified the most fragile components for replacement.

Sharing best practice to maintain the temperature in coaches, which include lowering carriage curtains and closing doors, should help too.

SNCF’s so-called “tropicalisation of trains” drive also includes painting the roofs of some Intercity carriages white. This trial will be confined to older Corail units, which will be fitted with temperature sensors to track results.

“An assessment will be made to determine the benefits in terms of temperature reduction and to launch the deployment on a larger number of trains,” SNCF said.

Read also: ‘Cool roofing’ white roof trend grows in popularity in France

9. Paris bike scheme ‘still viable’ despite massive deficit

Stakeholders have been assured that the future of the Paris bike share scheme Vélib' is not at stake, even though an audit has projected a €113 million deficit at the end of its current operating contract in 2032.

The Syndicat Autolib' et Vélib' Métropole (SAVM), a joint association of local authorities and public bodies, presented the audit on Tuesday (June 20) but insisted the scheme is nevertheless “profitable” and can continue to be so in future.

Read more: What is in the €2bn plan to promote cycling and bike lanes in France?

In a press release afterwards, it said the deficit was "mainly attributable to the years 2018-2021”. This coincided with a chaotic rollout of hi-tech bikes and docking stations by the scheme’s new operator Smovengo. The process was plagued by glitches and delays, leaving the service inaccessible for many months and creating a huge controversy.

SAVM added that the quality of the service since then has remained "inadequate in relation to the contractual targets", with the number of bicycles 16% below targets at the beginning of 2022.

However, it said that income and expenditure will nevertheless “balance out until the end of the contract, generating a profit for the company providing the service, Smovengo, of €95 million over the period 2022-2032.”

Read more: Sales of new electric bikes boom in France, push bikes fall

Some 3,000 additional bicycles are promised by Smovengo for the Olympic Games, as well as 100 new stations in the inner suburbs, financed by the Métropole du Grand Paris.

The Vélib initiative was launched in 2007 when it became the largest municipal bike-share scheme in the world.

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