French Trains Turn $1.75B Profit, Leave American Rail in the Dust


The Guardian reports that SNCF, France’s national rail company, is taking advantage of a boom in ridership to make aggressive plans for expansion. While SNCF positions itself to help ease the impact of high fuel prices on
the French public, what are American leaders preparing to do? Drilling
offshore and taking a few hits from the strategic petroleum reserve
aren’t going to cut it.

Over in France, all the new riders have SNCF chairman Guillaume Pepy thinking big:

The state-owned SNCF delivered a net €1.1bn (£875m) profit last year and first-half figures, due next week, are said to be sparkling. Pepy envisages up to 80m extra passenger trips this year or an increase of around 8%.

"This change will speed up because we are facing a twin energy and environment crisis," he says, pointing to surging fuel costs and growing personal worries about carbon footprints. "People want sustainable mobility and, in France, more trains and more SNCF."

The growing number of passengers is maxing out the current system, which Pepy sees as an opportunity, especially in a time of escalating fuel prices. He wants to double the size of SNCF’s high-speed network by 2015, make rail stations into multi-modal hubs, and capture market share from energy-intensive air and road travel.

The new SNCF chairman sees rail stations, mainly in the regions, becoming new transport (and commercial) hubs not just for trains but for buses and trams — "all those places where people don’t want to bring their cars."

SNCF executives believe rail can take market leadership from air and road on journeys up to four hours long and point to the success of Eurostar (part owned by the group) in increasing traffic so far this year by around a fifth on the back of shorter journey times between London and Brussels/Paris. You can even get to Marseille from Paris in little more than three hours.

Contrast to the attitude among many politicians and opinion leaders here in the U.S. — typified by this Wall Street Journal op-ed — which views public management of rail systems skeptically, to put it mildly. Congress may be taking a long-overdue step toward investing more in Amtrak, but that is triage compared to the direction SNCF is heading in, as high-speed train service in Europe widens its already considerable performance lead over American intercity rail.

Photo of high-speed trains at the Gare de Lyon in Paris: Feuillu/Flickr

  • gecko

    Extensive government subsidy of current very expensive transit practices may serve as the most likely delay to a much more beneficial broad implementation of small light vehicular transport and transit.

  • Change NOW

    this article (incredulously, considering the Olympics in Beijing) left out all of Asia has also surpassed us; including such “developing” nations such as China, which has modern mag-lev and other technologies we haven’t even dreamt of….Taiwan just modernized its’ entire national rail system; these nations, despite our neocon attempts to portray them as backwards, are much more open than our society, trains over there come from all over Europe and there is a lot of competition to build them, driving down prices, since we are so insular and xenophobic, I doubt any European company would even come here to build; look at attempts to modernize and expand wind, for instance, and the local redneck (and elitist who don’t want their aesthetic impacts to cause them to have a seizure; this was really brought up during discussion on wind law!!!!) revolt…elitist, my ass….mcbush is ignorant as hell….god help us all…..after dum s h i t gets the boot FINALLY

  • gecko

    One practice among many experienced travelers is to travel light! Current mass transit is legacy technology based on very large, heavy, over-powered vehicles with the intent to move a lot of people fast by packing huge numbers of them into these cumbersome and often uncomfortable vehicles and moving them fast. It does not account for people having to travel on their own to and from these vehicles, nor does it account for wait times and the lack of resilience and reliability in systems based on this awkward way to travel. Rapid transit is much more effectively achieved when individuals can rapidly move themselves. If a transit system can provide assistance especially, in high density situations, or during off-peak hours with automated steering, collision avoidance, and direct non-stop highway style travel all in place, so much the better!

    During low-use off-peak transit systems are awful because of costs. This need not be the case. Peak transit is also a nightmare because of costs.

    With most legacy technology there gets to be a point where it costs too much to use any more and should be replaced by newer, better methods. This is the situation of transportation today.

    The costs are too low. The risks are too small not to start the changeover.

    Small, light, hybrid human-electric technology promises cost savings, levels of resilience, convenience, practicality, and comfort that will far outstrip initial development investments within an extremely short time.



Debunking NIMBY Math on California HSR

“California High Speed Rail will forever need an operating subsidy.” That is the latest claim from an anti-HSR group called the Community Coalition on High Speed Rail. The group recently assailed CAHSR’s estimates that the system will cost 10 cents per passenger mile to operate, saying the figure is far too low and questioning the […]

The Cost of Lowballing Light Rail Ridership Projections

The Overhead Wire has picked up on a piece in Saturday’s New York Times about how light rail ridership in Phoenix has exceeded expectations. The post points out that this isn’t the first time the Federal Transportation Administration has underestimated demand for similar projects, a pattern that has the potential for real consequences: Light rail […]