International Railway Journal: June 2006
Andrew Roden, Associate Editor
A new wave of public-private partnerships is set to transform the way France funds its infrastructure projects - but it's a high-risk strategy that could have implications across Europe.
REVOLUTION is in the air in France - not as immediately dramatic as events a couple of hundred years ago, but for the country's track authority, French Rail Network (RFF), just as profound. Private investment is being sought for some of the most important rail projects in the country.
This decision, encouraged by the European Union (EU) and enforced by the French government is a radical departure from the norm for France's rail network, which is more used to extensive pump-prime funding from central and regional government. The message being sent out is clear: the funding stream is running dry, and with RFF having debts of Euros 27 billion, who can blame the government for that view?
The first project that concessioning in the form of a public-private partnership will be used on is the ambitious plan to link Tours and Bordeaux with a new high-speed line, known as TGV South Europe Atlantic (TGVsea). For this key strategic route, tenders will shortly be issued for companies to design, build, finance, operate, and maintain the line. It is expected to open in 2013.
While the process for TGVsea is a relatively straightforward concessioning, another process will be used for the 60km mixed-use line between Nîmes and Montpellier, which will see private sector involvement limited to financing and building the line.
But there's a massive potential problem. If the Paris-Strasbourg TGV Est high-speed line is a reliable indicator, there may not be enough traffic to encourage private sector companies to take on the revenue risk of a new line. This means that, inevitably, construction and finance costs will rise, to the detriment of all. If that happens, then a whole raft of grand projets could be placed at risk: something that surely the French would never tolerate.
One of the key men charged with ensuring the success of this process is RFF's new deputy director general, Mr Herve de Tréglodé, one of the most experienced and highly-regarded rail managers in Europe. In his first interview in his new role, he appears sanguine about prospects for the future: "In the near future, the market will be open to new undertakings - the first new companies are already running in France - so we see clear benefits there."
An action plan for maintenance of France's regional network is due to be submitted by RFF and SNCF to the government shortly.
De Tréglodé acknowledges, though, that there are significant enough challenges in the present to occupy RFF. I put it to him that maintenance of many secondary and regional routes has suffered in recent years, with attention being focussed on high-speed lines to the detriment of others. The result is a swathe of temporary speed restrictions that are proving hugely disruptive. It is, says de Tréglodé a lack of funding that is to blame, but also a lack of productivity in infrastructure maintenance. That central government has demanded (rather than the usual request) a joint action plan from RFF and its track maintainer, French National Railways (SNCF), surely tells its own story.
The plan is due to be submitted soon, but clearly, there are no sure-fire quick solutions to deep-seated problems on France's peripheral network, and some well-placed observers are even now comparing the situation in France with that in Britain some years ago, when the track authority had no direct control over what maintenance work was done on its network.
Despite this, de Tréglodé asserts that RFF's relationship with SNCF is extremely positive: "We have the same priorities, and the same objectives: after all, if there was no SNCF, there would be no trains!"
France has used the TVM-430 cab signalling system on its high-speed lines for many years with a high degree of success, and while anecdotal evidence suggests that SNCF is naturally not keen on installing European Train Control System (ETCS) in its fleet when it has a perfectly good alternative, de Tréglodé is extremely positive about the opportunities offered by European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS).
"Our first action in the future is ERTMS," he says enthusiastically. "We are preparing dual control [ETCS and TVM-430] on TGV Est, which is due to open in 2007, and will be the first use of ERTMS in France.
"Beyond that, we are studying how we can roll it out across the network, because clearly, international traffic is extremely important to us. We strongly believe that ERTMS will be of huge benefit for the open market that is starting to develop across Europe."
Key corridors are Belgium--France--Switzerland, to Lyon and southeast France, and also to Spain, which is set to be an enthusiastic adopter of the new signalling standard.
The full article can be read in the June issue of IRJ