Ouigo: SNCF launches more low-cost train service

February 19, 2013 at 10:41 pm

SNCF (French national railways) president Guillaume Pépy announced today the introduction of Ouigo on the national high-speed TGV network of France. The service will run between Marle-la-Vallée-Chessy (also where Euro Disney is located), a suburb east of Paris, and Lyon, Avignon, and Marseille. Tickets for the roughly 475 mile journey (which takes only 3 hours) will start at just 10 € for adults, and 5 € for children (today, that’s $13.50 and $6.75 USD, respectively).

Ouigo Duplex train. Credit: 20 Minutes.

Pépy lauded the introduction as a TGV service “not for Parisians” (“pas pour les Parisiens”), by which he means it is for those who live on the outskirts of Paris. Most TGV service runs radially from Paris, which makes some sense considering it is the capital of France, a national and international economic powerhouse, and the most-visited city in the world. But in an attempt to make itself a viable option for those who might otherwise make the journey to southern destinations by car or low-cost airline, SNCF is acting like a business in a recessed economy.

Comparison of ticket prices for different modes between Paris and Marseille, from top to bottom: TGV Loisir (standard high-speed rail), Air France, reserved carpool, iDTGV (other low-cost TGV service), Ryanair, TGV Prem’s (the first tickets sold, usually cheaper), and Ouigo. The map is not to scale; Marne-la-Vallée is not out near Strasbourg. Credit: Le Figaro.fr.

Marne-la-Vallée, the destination closest to Paris, is about 50 minutes from central Paris via suburban RER service. But the cheapest ticket you might find is upwards of 30 € ($40), and probably more in the peak traveling seasons. Ouigo, with its low-cost service, will operate like a low-cost airline (although a little bit better): There is a strict baggage limit, no bar car, and the interior isn’t as spacious as a normal TGV car in order to fit more passengers on board. For 3 hours without highway tolls or security lines, though, the cost savings is probably worth it.

Interior of a Ouigo car. Credit: Tuxboard.

Interior of normal TGV car. Credit: B-Europe.com

It should be noted, though, that if you were in Paris or its suburbs in any other direction, an RER ticket to Marne-la-Vallée would cost almost $10.

This isn’t of particular importance to Americans, but it is notable when reading about the existing Paris–Montpellier LGV (ligne à grande vitesse, high-speed line) corridor is that it has trapped more than 60% of the market share of journeys between the two large cities. The journey is almost 500 miles and has still managed to obtain this much market share. In the United States, we have plenty of cities that are this far apart and could be joined by fast rail service. We’ve already seen this large market share among trains along the Acela corridor. Imagine if we could have faster service there, as well as similar service throughout the United States.* Aside from that, the willingness of SNCF to create different levels of service to tailor to different types of people just shows that high-speed rail is viable and it can be operated like a private enterprise.

I’ve used TGV services in both 2nd- and 1st-class (even those tickets are price-competitive) as well as the Thalys service to Amsterdam from Paris. This summer I will likely use the Eurostar service from London and the AVE service to Barcelona as well. If more Americans understood how well this system works and how efficiently and inexpensively it can serve a large area (with local service running between smaller cities), it could create a dramatic shift in the way we travel. I know this first requires investment. I believe it secondly involves effective marketing of the automobile kind. When’s the last time Amtrak effectively advertised to you?

What do you think it would take to get more Americans to see these benefits?

*Well, SNCF did propose these types of networks, see here for a lengthy proposal in the Midwest that would connect Chicago and Milwaukee in just over a half-hour (unheard of) or Milwaukee and Cleveland in just over 3 hours.