What the Spinetta Axe Reveals About Cost Control

The Macron administration commissioned a report about the future of SNCF by former Air France chief Jean-Cyril Spinetta. Spinetta released his report four days ago, making it clear that rail is growing in France but most of the network is unprofitable and should be shrunk. There is an overview of the report in English on Railway Gazette, and some more details in French media (La Tribune calls it “mind-blowing,” Les Echos “explosive”); the full proposal can be read here. Some of the recommendations in the Spinetta report concern governance, but the most radical one calls for pruning about 45% of SNCF’s network by length, which carries only 2% of passenger traffic. Given the extent of the proposed cut, it’s appropriate to refer to this report as the Spinetta Axe, in analogy with the Beeching Axe.

I wrote a mini-overview on Twitter, focusing on the content of the Axe. In this post I’m going to do more analysis of SNCF’s cost control problem and what we can learn from the report. The big takeaway is that cost control pressure is the highest on low-ridership lines, rather than on high-ridership lines. There is no attempt made to reduce SNCF’s operating costs in Ile-de-France or on the intercity main lines through better efficiency. To the British or American reader, it’s especially useful to read the report with a critical eye, since it is in some ways a better version of British and American discussions about efficiency that nonetheless accept high construction costs as a given.

SNCF is Losing Money

The major problem that the report begins with is that SNCF is losing money. It is not getting state subsidies, but instead it borrows to fund operating losses, to the tune of €2.8 billion in annual deficit (p. 28), of which €1.2-1.4 billion come from interest expenses on past debt and €1 billion come from taxes. Its situation is similar to that of Japan National Railways in the 1970s, which accumulated debt to fund operating losses, which the state ultimately wiped out in the restructuring and privatization of 1987. The report is aiming to find operating savings to put SNCF in the black without breaking up or privatizing the company; its proposed change to governance (turning SNCF into an SA) is entirely within the state-owned sector.

Unlike the Beeching report, the Spinetta report happens in a context of rising rail traffic. It opens up by making it clear that rail is not in decline in France, pointing out growth in both local and intercity ridership. However, SNCF is still losing money, because of the low financial performance of the legacy network and regional lines. The TGV network overall is profitable (though not every single train is profitable), but the TERs are big money pits. Annual regional contributions to the TER network total €3 billion, compared with just €1 billion in fare revenue (p. 30). The legacy intercity lines, which are rebranded every few years and are now called TETs, lose another €300 million. Some of the rising debt is just capital expenses that aren’t fully funded, including track renovation and new rolling stock; even in the Paris region, which has money, rolling stock purchase has only recently been devolved from SNCF to the regional transport association (p. 31).

In fact, the large monetary deficit is a recent phenomenon. In 2010, SNCF lost €600 million, but paid €1.2 billion in interest costs (p. 27); its operating margin was larger than its capital expenses. Capital expenses have risen due to increase in investment, while the operating margin has fallen due to an increase in operating costs. The report does not go into the history of fares (it says French rail fares are among Europe’s lowest, but its main comparisons are very high-fare networks like Switzerland’s, and in reality France is similar to Germany and Spain). But it says fares have not risen, for which SNCF’s attempt to provide deliberately uncomfortable lower-fare trains must share the blame.

The Spinetta Axe

The Spinetta report proposes multiple big changes; French media treats converting SNCF to an SA as a big deal. But in terms of the network, the biggest change is the cut to low-performing rail branches. The UIC categorizes rail lines based on traffic levels and required investment, from 1 (highest) to 9 (lowest). Categories 7-9 consist of 44% of route-km but only 9% of train-km (p. 48) and 2% of passengers (p. 51). Annual capital and operating spending on these lines is €1.7 billion (about €1 per passenger-km), and bringing them to a state of good repair would cost €5 billion. In contrast, closing these lines would save €1.2 billion a year.

But the report is not just cuts. Very little of SNCF’s operating expenditure is marginal: on p. 34 the report claims that marginal operating costs only add up to €1 billion a year, out of about €5.5 billion in total operating costs excluding any and all capital spending. As a result, alongside its recommendations to close low-ridership lines, it is suggesting increasing off-peak frequency on retained lines (p. 54, footnote 53).

There is no list of which lines should be closed; this is left for later. Page 50 has a map of category 7-9 lines, which are mostly rural branch lines, for example Nice-Breil-Tende. But a few are more intense regional lines, around Lyon, Toulouse, Rennes, Lille, and Strasbourg, and would presumably be kept and maintained to higher standards. Conversely, some category 5-6 lines could also be closed.

The report is equally harsh toward the TGV. While the TGV is overall profitable, not all parts of it are competitive. Per the report, the breakeven point with air travel, on both mode share and operating costs, is 3 hours one-way. At 3:30-4 hours one way, the report describes the situation for trains as “brutal,” with planes getting 80% mode share (p. 61). With TGV operating costs of €0.06/seat-km without capital (€0.07 with), it is uncompetitive on cost with low-cost airlines beyond 700 km, where EasyJet and Air France can keep costs down to €0.05/seat-km including capital and Ryanair to €0.04.

And this is where the report loses me. The TGV’s mode share versus air is consistently higher than that given in the report. One study imputes a breakeven point at nearly 4 hours. A study done for the LGV PACA, between Marseille and Nice, claims that as of 2009, the TGV had a 30% mode share on Paris-Nice, even including cars; its share of the air-rail market was 38%. This is a train that takes nearly 6 hours and was delayed three out of four times I took it, and the fourth time only made it on time because its timetable was unusually padded between Marseille and Paris. On Paris-Toulon, where the TGV takes about 4 hours, its mode share in 2009 was 54%, or 82% of the air-rail market.

SNCF has some serious operating cost issues. For example, the conventional TGVs (i.e. not the low-cost OuiGo) have four conductors per 200-meter train; the Shinkansen has three conductors per 400-meter train. The operating costs imputed from the European and East Asian average in American studies are somewhat lower, about $0.05-6/seat-km, or about €0.04-5/seat-km, making HSR competitive with low-cost airlines at longer range. However, there is no attempt to investigate how these costs can be reduced. One possibility, not running expensive TGVs on legacy lines but only on high-speed lines, is explicitly rejected (p. 64), and rightly so – Rennes, Toulouse, Mulhouse, Toulon, Nice, and Nantes are all on legacy lines.

This is something SNCF is aware of; it’s trying to improve fleet utilization to reduce operating costs by 20-30%. With higher fleet utilization, it could withdraw most of its single-level trains and have a nearly all-bilevel fleet, with just one single-level class, simplifying maintenance and interchangeability in similar manner to low-cost carriers’ use of a single aircraft class. However, this drive is not mentioned at all in the report, which takes today’s high costs as a given.

Efficiencies not Mentioned

The biggest bombshell I saw in the report is not in the recommendations at all. It is not in the Spinetta Axe, but in a table on p. 21 comparing SNCF with DB. The two networks are of similar size, with DB slightly larger, 35,000 route-km and 52,000 track-km vs. 26,000 and 49,000 on SNCF. But DB’s annual track maintenance budget is €1.4 billion whereas SNCF’s is €2.28 billion. Nearly the entire primary deficit of SNCF could be closed just by reducing track maintenance costs to German levels, without cutting low-usage lines.

Nonetheless, there is no investigation of whether it’s possible to conduct track maintenance more efficiently. Here as with the TGV’s operating expenses, the report treats unit costs as a fixed constant, rather than as variables that depend on labor productivity and good management.

Nor is there any discussion of rolling stock costs. Paris’s bespoke RER D and E trains, funded locally on lines to be operated by SNCF, cost €4.7 million per 25 meters of train length, with 30% of this cost going to design and overheads and only 70% to actual manufacturing. In Sweden, the more standard KISS cost €2.9 million per 25-meter car.

Low-ridership dilapidated rural branch lines are not the only place in the network where it’s possible to reduce costs. Rolling stock in Paris costs too much, maintenance on the entire network costs too much, TGV operating costs are higher than they should be, and fleet utilization in the off-peak is very low. The average TGV runs for 8 hours a day, and SNCF hopes to expand this to 10.

The Impetus for Cost Control

The Beeching Axe came in the context of falling rail traffic. The Spinetta Axe comes in the context of rapidly growing SNCF operating costs, recommending things that could and probably should have been done ten years ago. But ten years ago, SNCF had a primary surplus and there was no pressure to contain costs. By the same token, the report is recommending pruning the weakest lines, but ignores efficiencies on the strong lines, on the “why mess with what works?” idea.

The same effect is seen regionally. French rolling stock costs do not seem unusually high outside Paris. But Ile-de-France has money to waste, so it’s spending far too much on designing new rolling stock that nobody else has any use for. This is true outside France as well: the high operating costs of the subway in New York are not a US-wide phenomenon, but rather are restricted to New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, while the rest of the country, facing bigger cost pressure than New York and Boston, is forced to run trains for the same cost as the major European cities. It is also likely that New York (and more recently London) allowed its construction costs to explode to extreme levels because, with enough money to splurge on high-use lines like 63rd Street Tunnel and Second Avenue Subway, it never paid attention to cost control.

This approach to cost control is entirely reactive. Places with high operating or capital costs don’t mind these costs when times are good, and then face crisis when times are bad, such as when the financial crisis led to stagnation in TGV revenue amidst continued growth in operating costs, or when costs explode to the point of making plans no longer affordable. In crisis mode, a gentle reduction in costs may not be possible technically or politically, given pressure to save money fast. Without time to develop alternative plans, or learn and adopt best industry practices, agencies (or private companies) turn to cuts and cancel investment plans.

A stronger approach must be proactive. This means looking for cost savings regardless of the current financial situation, in profitable as well as unprofitable areas. If anything, rich regions and companies are better placed for improving efficiency: they have deep enough pockets to finance the one-time cost of some reforms and to take their time to implement reforms correctly. SNCF is getting caught with its pants down, and as a result Spinetta is proposing cuts but nothing about reducing unit operating and maintenance costs. Under a proactive approach, the key is not to get caught with your pants down in the first place.

40 comments

  1. Eric

    How would one implement a proactive approach?

    Politicians understand only votes, and voters understand only whether a project will get built, not whether it is overpriced relative to some abstract standard.

    Internal managers might see places were efficiency can be improved. But frequently this can only be accomplished by taking on entrenched forces such as unions. And as before, without the political willpower this will not happen.

  2. ckrueger99

    On trains, any 6 hour train route is composed of numerous 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-hour routes (with the most highly trafficked ones focusing on the Paris endpoint). A single airplane route doesn’t have any of the sub routes. Is this accounted for in the profitability calculations? I would guess that most of those shorter sub-routes would have train market shares of close to 100%, which you get almost for free once the longer route is running.
    Also the network effects of the less trafficked routes — but this may be lost once competitors join SNCF on the main lines.

    • Alon Levy

      SNCF tends to run TGVs nonstop on the LGVs. Paris-Marseille trains don’t stop in Lyon; Paris-Lyon trains don’t continue to Marseille. A few trains per day stop at intermediate stations on the LGVs, like Avignon-TGV, but they don’t run local or anything – they just make 1-2 intermediate stops, it just varies which stops they make, and few enough people use these that the turnover isn’t significant. SNCF’s goal is not to rely on turnover, which risks trains not being full for part of the trip.

      On the longer routes, using legacy lines for part of the way, the situation is different. The Paris-Nice trains run mostly nonstop to Toulon, and then gradually empty outbound from Toulon to Nice or fill inbound. At Nice itself the train is maybe 20% full. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Paris-Nice trains lose money, since they have to run 6 hours in each direction and only get to charge for around 700 km (Paris-Nice fares are pretty similar to Paris-Marseille fares to compete with airlines).

      • Diego Beghin

        The TGVs that bypass central Paris do have intermediate stops, like Brussels-Lille-CDG-Marne La Vallée-Lyon, or Lyon-Massy-Rennes. But they’re probably not that a big fraction of the total TGV ridership.

  3. Bjorn

    I tinkered in Google Maps from a few destinations to Paris for a few minutes and noticed that TGV trains are peaked more like city transit. From Strasbourg tomorrow (a weekday), there’s a train about every 30 minutes until 8:00 and then a train only every two or three hours until the evening rush.

    What does SNCF currently do with idle mid-day trains? Do they send them on more leisure-oriented routes (in the middle of February…), performed scheduled maintenance, or just idle the trains until the afternoon peak?

    • Alon Levy

      They do maintenance during weekday off-peaks; the Railway Gazette article linked about SNCF’s internal cost reduction mentions the possibility of nighttime maintenance to improve fleet utilization.

      The peak factor also depends on the destination. Paris-Lyon and Paris-Marseille have a 2:1 peak-to-base ratio.

      • Bjorn

        Nighttime maintenance is a double-edged sword. While more operating time is available to run trains when customers want to travel, the shop-side of the company has more of a burden. As few mechanics desire to work permanent graveyard shifts, pay needs to be commensurately higher as an offset. It’s also probable that nighttime workers are more fatigued, less productive, and more likely to make mistakes (the magnitude of which this is a concern would require reviewing industrial research).

        • Alon Levy

          Nighttime track maintenance is routine on just about every metro system in the world, so it’s not like there’s no precedent for it. The shop-side problems are real, but they have to be smaller than the problems of doing track maintenance in the daytime next to active track.

  4. Adam

    Over on this side of the pond, Los Angeles just announced their airport connector will now cost 5 billion plus for the 2 mile line. Does that make it the most expensive transit project ever in human history (on a cost per mile basis).

    It’s funny how “if you fund it, it gets more expensive works out “ the 2008 measure r tax funded only a couple hundred million towards the airport connector, and the city didn’t think they could build it since it would cost 600-700 million to build.

    When the 2016 measure m tax was passed and the connector was explicitly guaranteed to be fully funded and one of the first projects to receive funding, it has now mysteriously ballooned to five billion.

    Seems like design build fraud has a new more lucrative cousin, design build operate.

    And remember, before the new design build methods were used, Los Angeles built 20 miles and 14 stations of a subway for five billion.

    Now we get two miles of the people connector
    For that much investment.

    • Joseph

      The airport people mover project cost of 4.5 billion includes operations subsidies for the next 30 years. Most of the cost will be paid by airport passengers via landing fees, just like other airport construction costs, though the LA Metro system is paying to add a new light rail station which will connect with the people mover.
      Doesn’t make it a good deal, but it’s not as bad as all that.

  5. Michael James

    Oh boy. Like I said when he was elected, if Macron allows France to fall down this idiot econocratic rabbit-hole, they are lost. (I don’t know if this report was commissioned by, or predates, Macron.) As if the Beeching report and its outcome, which can be seen in the today’s miserable UK, isn’t enough, it’s the entire idiot notion that infrastructure like a rail network must run at a “profit” or has to be closed down. It ignores how a network operates (or how closing down parts will inevitably degrade the economics of the whole).
    Not to mention how relatively trivial are these “losses” (or as Adam said above, costing less than two miles of people connector in the US). Speaking of the US, their Interstate Highway System has a maintenance bill of approx. $66bn per year, of which: $40bn is federal and $25bn is states; gas taxes and tolls account for about 60% leaving about $26bn to be paid out of general revenue or other means. Now this $26bn should be labelled “losses” or “subsidies” but do you ever hear of it described in that way? Is there any talk of closing down the less-used minor roads? And this leaves out the estimated $85bn in repairs and upgrades the system needs but is not getting. Obviously it is considered to be providing a vital function to the economy and security of the nation … Oh, and as to the notion of “user pays”, before the IHS was built:

    • Early planning dates back to Franklin Roosevelt who envisioned a system of self-liquidating highways financed through a combination of tolls and the sale of surplus property rights. However, a federal study, titled “Toll Roads or Free Roads,” concluded that tolls could not generate sufficient revenues to pay for large portions of the system, especially in more sparsely developed areas. So the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 funded the fledgling system through a federal gas tax increase and the establishment of the Highway Trust Fund.

    Tell me Alon, is there anywhere in this report which even attempts an estimate of what value the SNCF network brings to France? Is it even calculable? What about what it saves; eg. in imported liquid fuels? Or in the lifetime costs of all the death and disability from car accidents that it avoids?

    I’m also expecting these econocrats to say that those trains should be replaced with “cheaper” buses. That’s one way to kill train travel and in fact public transit in general.

    In any case the “solution” in reducing costs lies partly in automation, especially for those with less traffic. They have just announced a driverless TGV, though doubtless it will take years to transition. (My theory on driverless trains is that it should grow the traffic because it should mean trains running both more frequently and at extended hours which is the bane of lesser-used lines, and which drives (sic) travellers to their cars or alternatives. Exactly the same phenom with city bus services.) And perhaps for rail to make a claim on a set share of the vast value it creates nationwide; ie. a version of value capture of, say, local business tax collections. It would amount to a tiny percentage.

    • Alon Levy

      The report was commissioned by Macron’s transport minister, Elisabeth Borne, whose background is in public transportation (she was the CEO of RATP, and had earlier worked for SNCF). My guess is that if Americans asked her for her opinion, she’d say the US should prioritize public transit and not the Interstates, and might even endorse tolling the Interstates the way the Autoroutes here are tolled.

      The Spinetta Axe isn’t estimating the value of the lines to be cut or their network effects, no. But, at 2% of national ridership, network effects are likely to be very weak. The report probably should have said something about investing in network effects, e.g. by timing transfers so that the Nice-Breil line could connect to the Marseille-Ventimiglia mainline, but even with timed transfers, Breil and Sospel aren’t big enough to feed the coastal mainline. Many of these lines are in poor state of repair anyway, so current speeds are very low; here is Diego’s take on the Gap-Grenoble line.

      My understanding is that most of the Beeching Axe in its final form removed low-usage lines. The Great Central Main Line’s removal was a tragedy, and some individual plans that never happened (e.g. removing the East Coast Main Line north of Newcastle) would have been bad as well, but the rural branch lines weren’t really going to recover.

      Driverless TGVs aren’t big money savers, I don’t think. At an average speed of 230 km/h, the driver’s wage isn’t a big factor in operating costs. I’m not even sure the driver’s wage here is especially high. On the Metro, the drivers are recruited straight out of high school and do not need an academic Bac, and get paid around 3,000 euros a month, unlike in London and New York, where driving a subway train is a high-paying senior position. The rate of return on making M4 driverless is pretty average by business standards (though not by public-sector standards). The main benefits are that computers don’t go on strike or arbitrarily decide to skip stations in low-income black and Arab neighborhoods, and that they can drive faster than humans and with shorter minimum gaps between trains (M1 went up from 24.4 to 30 km/h upon automation).

      • Diego Beghin

        For the record, the state of disrepair of the Gap-Grenoble link wasn’t felt only on the timetable, the ride was also noticeably bumpy.

      • Michael James

        On the Metro, the drivers are recruited straight out of high school and do not need an academic Bac, and get paid around 3,000 euros a month, unlike in London and New York, where driving a subway train is a high-paying senior position.

        You’ve said that before and I remember I found, and cited, something that flatly contradicted it. Also it is quite contrary to usual practices in France in all professions, high and low. (I mean “straight out of high-school”! Please provide credible proof. You are almost certainly getting confused over traineeships that very large organisations like SNCF run.) I seem to recall driver’s pay was ok though not in the outrageous bracket that some in the US seem to get. (But that is true for a lot of French workers, including doctors.)
        And surely for a whole network, having to run two or three shifts a day on all those lines and trains, it has to be significant. You’ve previously said that Paris Metro train drivers only work 2.5 hours per shift. Also my point was that they can run more trains later into the night with little impact on costs. Surely it is labour costs that is the main reason why they don’t do this; (and the awkward issue of staff being stranded on the network extremities); IIRC the last TGVs to the south leave Paris no later than about 7pm, which is a bore and way too early. In your last, or recent, article you said how maintenance and depreciation of rail stock is not impacted much by how much they are used (and that running higher frequency therefore has little impact on these issues). They plan to make the whole Paris Metro system driverless–though I suppose it is going to take several more decades–and though perhaps largely driven by the need to be more efficient so as to carry more pax, nevertheless it will also reduce the wages bill.
        On the same issue, don’t transit experts say that NYC’s 24/7 subway is an expensive extravagance which should be cut?

        Re Beeching, cutting low-use lines was just the beginning of 5 decades of underinvestment in rail in the UK And most other infrastructure; with today’s economic eyes it looks weird that post-war the UK went into deep austerity mode for decades–which is why London and the UK was so dreary, notwithstanding the Swinging Sixties, and remains scarred by it to this day–while the rest of the world invested heavily in infrastructure such as the French Trente Glorieuses. That austerity mindset is why the plans for things like London CrossRail are only being built 50-60 years after they were first mooted.

        [Spinetta Report] arguing that France is ‘unique in Europe’ in allocating around 15% of its annual rail funding to routes that carry ‘just 2% of passengers’

        Exactly the same bullshit pseudo-econocratic approach to be expected from the kind of people chosen to write these reports. Those particular data points are carefully chosen to make it look awful, but cut those 2% and you would still find the new system would still have X% of budget on a few percent of the network thus instigating a new round of cuts. Every network is like that, and if you take the British (or American) approach you’ll just keep cutting until you end up with a few mainlines and everyone else will be in cars or buses, journey lengthened or simply abandoned. And a deeply unhappy travelling public. I mean do you have any concept of how pissed off the Brit public is with this shit? All while so-called privatised lines cost the government more than pre-privatisation, yet with poorer service levels. Don’t forget that France is the largest country in Europe which is to say it has an inbuilt geographic inefficiency factor (combined with the fact that most of its border is sea not other countries like Germany–which makes “peripheral” lines much more efficient). And a rather more important service obligation factor.

        [Spinetta Report] the requirement under the EU’s Fourth Railway Package to liberalise the domestic passenger market. … Spinetta says the onset of competition ‘presents a unique opportunity’ to address ‘an urgent situation’.

        Bloody hell, the same old b.s. lines out of the neo-liberal playbook. As if “competition” has worked anywhere in the world for rail (or even buses–speak to any Brit. but you could also ask the Germans about their rail system too). Those privatised British rail lines and services don’t actually compete, except in some entirely notional basis, and their performance is awful (except perhaps financial performance for their shareholders and top management).

        [Spinetta Report] The national railway must refocus on ‘the areas where it has greatest relevance’: transporting large numbers of passengers within urban areas, and providing high speed connectivity between France’s principal cities.
        This mission statement is at the heart of a landmark report …

        Where did these absurd statements of higher truth come from? This is nothing less than saying that the report was merely a fig leaf to cover a philosophy imposed before it was commissioned (apparently). This is out of the classic rule book of governments commissioning reports (never institute a report/enquiry unless you know/control the outcome.) Appalling. The whole thing is conditioned on the exaggeration about escalating costs. Of course no one thinks costs should not be contained but equally we all know there is no easy ‘solution’, and worse, it is just a simplistic excuse to start removing the “public” from public transport and that attempts to privatise it (like the UK) will simply ruin it, make it even more expensive (for government who will continue to subsidise it–as is the case for those JR entities you continue to treat as if they are wonderful ‘private’ commercial successes–and for travellers who will pay more for inferior service). And of course if they force operational competition, doubtless it will involve buying the cheapest trains from China (an industry built by stealing IP from France, Germany & Japan) so it will make Alstom less viable (something economic rationalists seem to find essential). It really is the whole neo-liberal shitstorm. Shrink government, privatise profits while socialising the costs. I can’t believe France will allow it to happen.

    • Oreg

      @Michael James: Exactly what I wondered about: network effects and positive externalities of public transport.

      One aspect I think the Germans got right is to let local authorities take over local lines that the national operator finds unprofitable. I understand that quite some revived lines became very successful under local management. Even if they still require subsidies, the local taxpayers see the benefits to the community. They also know best which lines really make no sense. Subsidiarity works.

      • Eric

        Amtrak did that too – Congress required states to fund some of the more peripheral lines…

  6. Diego Beghin

    The comparison between economic performance of TGVs and airplanes is also unfair because airplane fuel is untaxed, while trains pay full taxes on their electricity consumption.

    Frankly, airplane fuel should be heavily taxed. This isn’t possible internationally without changing the Chicago convention*, but countries with a sizeable internal market, like France, have no excuses not to tax domestic flights.

    *Maybe the EU can tax fuel for internal EU flights? It would be an interesting question to investigate.

      • Alon Levy

        I don’t think there’s much substitution between Barcelona and Nice. Flights out of Paris go to Nice way more than to Barcelona; flights out of London or maybe Germany go to Barcelona way more than to the Riviera, which is too expensive for cheap Mediterranean vacations.

      • Diego Beghin

        The train ride to Nice is quite long, so yes, I would expect that if airline prices were higher Parisians would just go less often to Nice. A shame for Nice, but the point is to curb demand for polluting industries. And as Alon says, I doubt there are lots of people whose decision on whether to fly to Barcelona or Nice hinges on which fare is 50€ cheaper. So the airplane demand wouldn’t just be shifted somewhere else.

    • adirondacker12800

      Not that any airline flies this route or ever will, fill up the plane with untaxed fuel in Brussels or Amsterdam, fly to Paris, Nice and Rome it arrives in Rome with lots of fuel. Where it fills up again and flies across France on untaxed fuel. The software airlines use to tweak things has been around for 50 years and it’s very good at figuring things out.

      • Diego Beghin

        But there is a lot more demand on the Paris-Nice leg than on Amsterdam-Paris or Nice-Rome legs. (Brussels-Paris is 1h20 by train so there’s no way you can fill any plane on that route). This will be an issue on almost any international route you try to plug into Paris-Nice, the internal market is a lot stronger than the international one. It would make more sense for the airlines to pay the taxes rather than fly empty planes.

        • Alon Levy

          The report goes into that, actually (former Air France chief, after all) – at the range of Paris-Brussels, Air France gives up on O&D air service and redirects flights from Orly to Charles-de-Gaulle for international connections. But the big internal markets without competitive TGV service, i.e. Paris-Nice and (until last year) Paris-Toulouse, feed Orly.

          • Diego Beghin

            So you’re saying a Brussels-Orly flight might make sense, for connecting Brusseleirs wanting to vacation in Nice. The King would like it, I guess, but the stereotype is that Belgians take their vacations in Spain.

          • Eric

            No, Brussels-Nice would work better as a direct flight (which already exists).

          • Diego Beghin

            Figures. I have never even considered taking vacations in Nice, so I wouldn’t know anything about that.

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  8. Korakys

    This is an excellent write-up. Keep up the good work.

    I’ve only taken one train journey in France but the first leg was on the Marseille to Paris line. It was delayed enough for me to miss my connection to Barcelona. Thankfully they organised a room for me and got me there the next day, seems uneconomic though.

    • Michael James

      Korakys, I assume you were connecting at Montpellier (coming from Marseille) and that you were booked on the last train of the day at 19.41? In that case you won. Not only did you score an evening in Montpellier (I hope you took advantage–this is the city that polls show most French would like to live in). And because it is much nicer to take this train during daytime and ride through the fabulous Languedoc-Roussillon. It passes through beautiful towns (even if not stopping, eg. Beziers), endless vineyards, Med beaches and etangs (Basin de Thau nr Sete; and at Narbonne?). You can even see Mt Canigou when it stops in Perpignan.

      For similar reasons the train Paris to Nice is always better than flying. The last stretch, Marseille to Nice is perhaps the best of all even if it is the slowest stretch (not a high-speed line) as it is practically on the sand beaches in places.

    • Alon Levy

      Nowadays the Paris-Barcelona trains depart Gare de Lyon, so it’s weird that you had to connect in Paris between Marseille and Barcelona, rather than Lyon or something (or even having a few daily direct trains).

      • Michael James

        The Paris to Barcelona TGV has its first stop, after leaving Paris-Gare de Lyon, at Montpellier (it doesn’t stop at Lyon or Avignon) and that is the closest connection from Marseille. So that’s what I assumed. There are direct trains though a bit slow at 90 mins.

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