Progress is moving forward, but travel times are getting longer. As the TGVs travel through France at 200mph, the Intercités, the bad relations of high speed, slow inexorably. In twenty years, the time to connect Paris with Clermont-Ferrand or Limoges, or even Bordeaux with Nantes or Marseille, has become significantly longer. To reach Limoges from the capital it took 195 minutes in 2019, compared to 166 in 2003, according to data on “the evolution of travel times” shared by the SNCF. Twenty-nine minutes left to cover 340 km!
The addition of stops on the lines is not enough to explain such a development. The aging network, which is dilapidated in some places, is forcing these “territorial balance trains” (TET), which carried 13 million French people in 2022, to reduce their speed. When recurring “technical problems” do not cause delays, sometimes of several hours, and successive cancellations. The regularity – the number of trains arriving less than five, ten or fifteen minutes late, depending on the initial journey time – does not exceed 86%, far from the minimum 90% for most TGVs.
Clément Beaune denounces “a collective shutdown”
An unthinkable structural decline, at a time when the government is making rail a priority and the SNCF is boasting about the ‘train hunger’ of the French. “These are long-distance lines. The longer the journey, the greater the chance of an incident due to an external cause. We also have to share the track with TER or freight trains. But the quality of service is not at the level we would like,” acknowledges Amandine Thomas-Commin, director of Intercités at SNCF.
Whose fault is it? For a long time, the State, the organizing body of the Intercités, has promoted the development of high-speed lines at the expense of the maintenance of the existing network. “There was a collective shutdown,” says Clément Beaune, Minister of Transport, Public Works and Water Management. It is a symbol of France with two speeds. For these users who do not have a TGV and also see their line turn off and go backwards. It’s a double punishment. A feeling of degradation arises. We are reversing the trend: I have made it a political struggle of priority. »
Besides Bordeaux-Marseille, “the worst line in France”, notes Clément Beaune, two lines concentrate all the criticism and symbolize this “sense of degradation”: Paris-Orléans-Limoges-Toulouse (POLT) and Paris-Clermont. “Travelers can’t take it anymore,” warns Renaud Lagrave, vice-president (PS) of transport for the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. The undignified situation leads to a lack of attractiveness of our areas. We are unable to attract talent and companies. » At the end of December 2022, the CEO of Legrand, a CAC 40 company based in Limoges, even threatened to move if the situation did not improve.
A kick in the anthill, to put an end to the chronic underinvestment that has caused the quality of services to plummet for decades. “At a time when the metropolis was emerging, it was undoubtedly judged that these areas had no future,” analyzes Fanny Arav, economist and director at SNCF Réseau. Today we are working with a certain disinterest. »
“The train time is long”
A high-speed rail project between Paris and Clermont, long in turmoil by local elected officials, has also distracted SNCF Réseau’s efforts. “We didn’t want to invest in a line that would be outdated a few years later,” confides an internal source. As a result, we have only ensured safety, without innovation or modernization. »
There has been a change since 2018. In total, the State has released more than 4 billion euros for the renovation of these lines and the purchase of rolling stock. “We have launched a huge work program, with real acceleration,” says Olivier Bancel, number 2 of SNCF Réseau. These two lines are part of our priorities. We are also replacing overhead lines that are sometimes 80 years old in the southern region, on the Bordeaux-Marseille transverse line. »
The new Oxygène trainsets, produced by the Spanish company CAF, are expected on all lines from 2026 – the date on which the SNCF Réseau’s operations end. Testing finally begins in November, on track in the Czech Republic. “While we wait for the new trains, we are doing everything we can to maintain the Corail trains in the best possible conditions,” underlines Amandine Thomas-Commin. The railway company has “doubled the cleaning frequency” and “strengthened maintenance teams”.
This cannot prevent the inconveniences that are tirelessly denounced by travelers and local elected officials during quarterly meetings that bring together all stakeholders. “We are monitoring the situation in full transparency and are putting pressure on the SNCF to report,” said Clément Beaune. The railroad company, constantly singled out, hides behind the promise of better days. “We know the impatience of travelers, but the train time is long,” confides Olivier Bancel. The promise of a return to good quality of service must be kept, and will continue to be so. We are already seeing results. »