New UK-France ferry, short air route row: 8 French travel updates

Plus rural train woes, Montpellier airport in a push to reduce its carbon footprint and free rail passes

This week’s travel wrap sees particular criticism of France’s public transport networks
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1. ‘It is a scandal’: New flights set to be launched between Toulouse and Barcelona

Low-cost carrier Vueling is set to launch a direct flight between Toulouse and Barcelona starting in July – but environmentalists have attacked the decision.

The airline is proposing three flights per week between the cities, with tickets starting at €22.90.

The cities are only 325km away by car, meaning a flight will take around one hour, a distance many deem as too short for a flight.

The anger is exacerbated by the closure of a previous rail link between the two cities.

A direct rail route was opened in 2013 but was stopped at the outbreak of Covid-19 before being cancelled in 2021.

Since then, numerous requests have been made to reinstate the line.

“In a context where the fight against climate change is a priority, we are convinced that such a link is essential," said Toulouse mayor Jean-Luc Moudenc back in March.

After the announcement of the route, others called on the government to step in and provide a rail alternative.

“How can we expect citizens to believe the speeches on the ecological transition when we give them such a spectacle… Nothing is being done to allow trains to pass through the Perthus [a railway tunnel between France and Spain], an infrastructure that has cost billions of euros of public money," said Rodérick Egal, a consultant specialising in cross-border relations.

“It is a scandal,” he added because the announcement has come only “three months after the Franco-Spanish treaty in Barcelona,” which was aimed at improving the relationship – and in part transport services – between the countries.

Read also: Strike sees Vueling scrap two-thirds of its flights at French airport

2. ‘You can't deprive people of sleep’: Campaigners want curfew at French airports

Alarm bells have been raised over the excess noise emissions coming from Paris’ major airports, with associations calling for a limit on the number of flights in the capital, particularly at night.

Campaigners say that 1.4 million people living in the Île-de-France region are exposed to noise emissions above the recommended level from the World Health Organization (WHO), and in some cases, this is cutting up to three years off of residents’ lives.

The situation is particularly severe for those living in the air corridor for flights coming to and from Roissy (Charles de Gaulle) airport in the north of the city.

Associations calling for the cap staged a protest outside the Ministry of Transport’s Parisian headquarters on Tuesday (May 9) and are seeking a solution similar to in Amsterdam – where the government has announced that night flights and private jet landings will be banned at the city’s Schiphol Airport.

“There are 170 night flights from Roissy airport,” said one of the campaigners Catherine Bouvier on FranceInfo, who also explained that the airport’s curfew is only seven hours instead of the WHO’s recommended eight.

“You can't deprive people of sleep... If it's possible in Amsterdam [Schiphol], which is a similar airport to Roissy, it should be possible in France too,” she added.

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

3. Elderly train users struggling in rural France

Train users in rural France – particularly the elderly – are struggling to access train services as ticket offices close across the country, according to a report by TF1.

Ticket offices in some rural stations are only open two hours a day, it said, and the rest of the time remain completely unmanned, leaving travellers to resort to using automatic ticket machines or online applications to buy tickets.

“I have no idea how to pay [on online apps],” said Nicole Tagand, a member of France’s transport users association, the Fédération nationale des associations d'usagers des transports (FNAUT).

The SNCFConnect app and website are advertised by the national network operator as official online spaces for buying tickets (alongside third-party sellers) but can be complicated to use for those unfamiliar with purchasing via the internet – or even impossible for those living in so-called internet ‘white zones’ with poor or no internet connection.

Even the ticket machines are not straightforward, says Ms Tagand.

“I can [buy tickets for] the TERs of the southern region and only the southern region, nowhere else. If I want to go to Paris, it doesn't offer TGV or night train tickets, for example,” she said.

Even if you do manage to get a ticket to your desired location, she says the machines can throw up other problems.

“It doesn't give change, it will issue me a ticket so that I can get my money back at the ticket office... the one that is closed,” she added.

In some stations, ticket offices are set to be permanently closed, even if around 30% of travellers still use them.

France’s state-owned railway operator, SNCF, said ticket office closures are decided at a regional, not national level, and are outside of its overall jurisdiction.

It added that soon you will be able to buy train tickets from tabacs and other shops, in certain areas.

Read also: Rail strikes in southern France over ticket office closures

4. Brittany Ferries to launch the world’s largest hybrid ferry

Brittany Ferries is set to introduce the world’s largest hybrid passenger ferry into their roster, with the ship sailing on routes from 2025.

The ship – Guillaume de Normandie (William of Normandy, or William the Conqueror) – will replace the Normandie that has been in service for 30 years and will take over the Ouistreham and Portsmouth route.

The new ship “will use both LNG, a gas that is less polluting than fuel oil, and batteries that will allow the ship to be powered by electricity during its stopovers, and even during a small part of the crossing,” said the company’s general manager Christophe Mathieu.

“We must, like all companies, participate in decarbonisation and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. And as we are rightly going to be charged more and more for fossil fuels, we have to find solutions to adapt, both to cope with global warming and to remain competitive,” he added.

The ecological features will allow the ship to cut its carbon emissions by around 15%, and reduce by up to 10% the energy needed for the ship’s propulsion.

Alongside environmental boons, the new ship is also 43 metres longer than its predecessor, allowing up to 1,300 passengers to embark per journey.

The event where the ship was announced also came with an update on Brittany Ferries’ performance.

Company president Jean-Marc Roué said passenger numbers for this year are estimated to be similar to in 2019 – the last year before Covid-19 and Brexit – and that even though passenger numbers between France and the UK had decreased, they have shot up between France and Ireland.

He also highlighted changes to sailing strategies – including fewer routes in winter but more directly before and after the tourist high season.

Reduced freight numbers are still an issue for the company, however, he stated.

Read also: Cruise ship drama as gusts of up to 135km/h cause ferry cancellations

5. Montpellier airport to power on with switch to electric

Montpellier airport is looking to save up to 1,000 tonnes of CO² emission per year by going electric.

The change - announced on Wednesday (May 10) - is set to come into force by the end of 2025, as part of plans to improve the airport’s green credentials.

When planes land at an airport, they still consume energy, which is often powered by the use of oil (or other fossil fuel) generators that they are hooked up to at airports during stopovers.

Between 20% and 50% of a plane’s CO² emissions come during stopovers when they are on an airport’s tarmac.

The oil-fuelled generators at Montpellier are to be fully replaced with electrical generators, and the airport will be equipped with five electric aircraft air conditioning units, to reduce the amount of kerosene used by auxiliary engines planes use when on stopovers.

A static plane at an airport’s tarmac “consumes 150 litres of paraffin per hour at full load or 400 kg of CO2," said Lionel Clermont, director of the company which will supply the air conditioners.

“Our machines consume about 5 kg of CO2 per hour,” he added.

The airport is also looking to transition to using electric service vehicles and taxis, as well as install electric car charging stations in all airport car parks, on top of switching to a green energy supplier for their electrical needs.

They also plan on setting up a carpooling system and improving public transit options for airport employees.

Read also: Which routes will be affected by French short domestic flight ban?

6. Greenpeace attacks French public transport

France’s public transport system is “too expensive” and “complicated”, NGO Greenpeace has said in a new report.

The study ranked the country’s transit network 21st in Europe (out of 30 nations studied).

The high costs of train travel were a factor for the low score, but the lack of tariff integration “at the national level” between different networks was also highlighted (particularly between TGV and TER services), as well as the poor quality of discount cards and passes for certain travellers, such as the elderly or young people.

In a ranking of European capitals, Paris itself scored even lower – 27th out of the 30 tested. This is because of the high cost of yearly travel in the capital (almost €1,000), alongside the lack of alternatives for those using public transport in the wider Île-de-France region (you can only use the Navigo card for most transport in the area).

The report did however praise the social aspects of the Navigo pass – cheaper prices for certain travellers, as well as the obligation for employers to reimburse at least 50% of the cost of travel – although this did not seem to factor into the report’s final score.

Luxembourg topped the national rankings – largely thanks to its completely free public transport system – followed by Malta, Austria, Germany, Cyprus, and Spain.

Greenpeace said it welcomed the “relatively affordable” nationwide tickets available in Germany and other countries and is waiting to hear more about the introduction of something similar in France to improve overall integration on the network – although this seems unlikely to come to fruition, as we noted in last week’s travel update.

Read also: Tax aviation and roads to fund French rail upgrades, says SNCF boss

7. EU hands out more than 35,000 free rail tickets to teenagers

The winners of the “DiscoverEU” competition – which sees young people in Europe aged 17 or 18 given a free rail ticket – were announced this week.

Almost 150,000 young people applied for the tickets, which provides free rail travel between two cities in Europe outside of their nation of residence - or up to seven days of unlimited rail travel within one month.

Overall 35,324 tickets were dished out.

“This figure [the number of applicants] shows how interested our young people are in discovering other cultures. I also know that they are committed to shaping a sustainable and inclusive future… I am convinced that exploring innovative and forward-looking European cities will be a source of inspiration for them. I wish them a safe journey!” said Mariya Gabriel, EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth.

The passes come alongside a ‘DiscoverEU’ card, which grants discounts for cultural activities like visiting landmarks and museums across Europe.

Whilst a breakdown of per-country applicants is not available for this year’s round of the scheme, in 2022 every single French applicant was successfully granted a pass, a feat only matched by Luxembourg and Bulgaria.

This was in part due to the low application numbers – there were only 2,003 French applicants last year, compared to 7,013 Italians, 5,594 Poles, and 16,420 Germans.

For reference, only 36 Luxembourgers and 461 Bulgarians applied.

Read also: Deadline to enter draw for a free Europe rail pass is fast approaching

8. Paris region transport chief eyes improvements

An improvement to public transport services in Paris – particularly concerning cleanliness and passenger information – is a top priority for the capital region’s transport boss.

The former presidential candidate and her team identified a number of areas the service will look to improve upon in the coming months, as well as the introduction of new safety measures for passengers.

It comes alongside generally positive reports over the service’s punctuality – although there are still some lines and sectors seeing delays.

“I expect specific commitments, a plan to return to normal for the quality of service perceived by users in their daily travel,” said Ms Pécresse.

Chief of these are on-board information lines on the RER D, the regional U, and tramlines 4 and 11, as well as improved cleanliness on the E, H, N, P, R regional lines and 4 and 11 tramlines.

The RATP (who operate public transport in the capital) themselves declared metro graffiti, escalator breakdowns, and tram and night bus cleanliness to be amongst their top concerns.

There are also plans to improve lift reliability and repair times and add more video surveillance services in stations and passenger contact points.

On top of this, funding for 12 new canine brigades will be made available, with the units speeding up response times to abandoned luggage on a train or platform.

Despite the good news, four lines of Paris’ metro (the 3, 6, 8 and 13) were classified as “red” for their lack of punctuality - fewer than 90% of trains ran on time on these lines.

The 7, 11, and 12 lines were dubbed “fragile”, with punctuality rates better than the "red" lines but not as efficient as other lines on the system.

Compared to 2022, however, the situation is much better, and the metro system has a 95% punctuality rate overall, according to RATP chief Jean Castex.

Buses in the capital have a slightly lower rate (87.5%) – but this is much improved than in September 2022, when only 75% of services ran well.

“We should see [bus services] reach 90% by the end of May,” said Mr Castex.

Read also: Woman dies after getting coat caught in doors of Paris metro train

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