In 2011, I wrote a post arguing that international links underperform. I gave examples, using many links nearly all of which have rotted in the 8.5 years since, showing that the ridership on various air and rail city pairs was lower if they were in two different countries than if they were in the same country. The most important example is Eurostar, connecting London and Paris. Eurostar has 11 million passengers per year, of which a growing minority go between London and cities other than Paris, like Brussels and Amsterdam. In contrast, the TGVs from Paris to the southeast have 44.4 million annual passengers; the major secondary cities on the line combine to about half of London’s population. The newly-opened LGV Sud-Europe-Atlantique has 6 million annual passengers on the Paris-Bordeaux city pair alone – and Bordeaux has an order of magnitude fewer inhabitants than London.
My assumption was always that Eurostar’s problem is that it connects two distinct countries, speaking two different languages. Thus, similar international connections, like oft-mooted proposals for high-speed rail between New York or Boston and Montreal or even between New York and Toronto, are likely to severely underperform domestic ones. This is not too relevant to the United States, which is not building high-speed rail of any kind, but is increasingly relevant to Europe, which is slowly building international links. But what if the assumption that the important aspect is the national or linguistic border is incorrect? What if there are other issues on Eurostar and various international air links, which national railroads can choose to solve if they care?
The issue of fares
I fired up Eurostar and SNCF’s sites and looked for tickets departing Tuesday in 13 days. I got 14 trains from London to Paris, charging fares ranging from €52.50 to €144.50. The average is €91.46, and the median is €98.50. From Paris to Lyon, I got 22 regular TGVs (“InOui”), charging €45-97, with an average of €84.63 and a median of €97 – but I also got 5 OuiGo trains, charging €10-25, all but one leaving from Gare de Lyon rather than Marne-la-Vallée with its difficult RER transfer.
On city pairs where SNCF expects more competition than Paris-Lyon, fares are lower, even when trips are longer. Paris-Marseille has 15 regular InOui departures and 8 OuiGos; the InOuis charge €49-79 with an average of €57.33, and the OuiGos charge €10-28, half serving Paris proper and half leaving from Marne-la-Vallée. The OuiGo services overall are unprofitable, but the InOuis aren’t – the Spinetta Report claims the fully-laden cost of TGV service is €0.07/seat-km, and seat utilization is very high (too high, in fact – it’s at the expense of off-peak frequency).
The other international service using the LGV Nord, Thalys, charges high fares as well, if less high than Eurostar. The site shows me 18 departures from Paris to Brussels on the 4th of February; one has a €29 ticket, but the others state that cheap ticket is sold out and offer me €66-99 tickets and one is entirely sold out. Going to Amsterdam, there are 10 departures, charging €98-135. To Cologne, the final of the major cities served by Thalys, there are 5 departures, one with a cheap €35 ticket and the rest charging €76-122. Thalys has 7.5 million annual riders, roughly within the same range relative to metro area population one would expect from Eurostar, depending on what one counts as the metro areas of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Cologne.
I compare Eurostar and Thalys with domestic TGVs not just out of convenience. SNCF owns a majority stake in Eurostar and Thalys. The yield management systems are likely similar, making a comparison of trips on the same day reasonable. In contrast, I would not want to do such a comparison with, say, the Shinkansen, which has no yield management at all and charges the same fare for the same class of seat and train speed.
The consequence of high fares
It’s quite likely, then, that the low ridership on Eurostar is connected with its high fares. Once tickets are expensive enough to discourage price-conscious customers, the ridership profile consists of price-insensitive travelers, making it possible to keep escalating fares.
A 2009 study by Christiaan Behrens and Eric Pels on air-rail competition in the London-Paris market finds that in a nested logit model, Eurostar travelers have a price elasticity of -0.14 to -0.15, compared with about -0.43 out of Heathrow on BA for businesses travelers and -0.77 for leisure travelers. The study compares different airlines and airport choices, with most of the market in the 2000s using Heathrow and either BA or Air France, with Air France having higher elasticity. In a mixed logit model, fare elasticities are all much higher, but Eurostar is still much more inelastic than flying, around -0.50 vs. -1 for business flyers and -2.5 for leisure flyers.
The second link in this post mentions growth in American tourist travel as a reason for Eurostar’s recent growth in ridership. It is not surprising that foreign tourists who paid high fares to travel to Europe and are staying in expensive hotels are a significant source of revenue to Eurostar. Presumably American tourist travel on domestic TGVs is up too, but it is far less significant, first because no secondary French city has the tourism of Paris and London except for Nice, 5.5 hours from Paris by train, and second because the domestic market is strong enough that American tourists are barely a blip on the radar.
Regardless, the elevated American tourist numbers present a peril to the state of the American discourse on the subject, even if they generate much-needed revenue for SNCF. Those tourists then come back to the US talking up the convenience of high-speed rail, or at least the version of it with security theater and passport checks, but bemoan the high ticket prices.
We already see what happens when train trips are priced for the top of the market in the United States. Fares per the 2016 annual report, the most recent one to include this data (on PDF-p. 41), average $0.58/p-km on the Acela and $0.30/p-km on the Regional; per an ARAFER report using 2016 data, the corresponding number for domestic TGVs is €0.10/p-km (PDF-pp. 15, 26). With Amtrak’s cheaper trains charging 2.5 times as much as the TGVs, price-conscious travelers decamp for intercity buses – just as price-conscious Europeans ride FlixBus where train travel options are too slow or too expensive. By now, a decade after Megabus and Bolt entered the market, Amtrak is largely only used by people who are price-insensitive or who get motion-sick on buses.
Why are they like this?
If the problem is that international links underperform because they are expensive, then it raises the question, why are fares high to begin with? SNCF charges high fares on Thalys and Eurostar, but not on its domestic trains. This isn’t just about American tourists – I heard too few American accents when I took Eurostar for Americans to be a big enough proportion of revenue. Nor is this about business travelers, because there are many of these traveling between Paris and other French cities.
Rather, my suspicion is that the difference is political. National railroads offering domestic train service face demands from various interests in different directions: the executives themselves as well as the treasury want to maximize revenue, the government writ large wants to give the appearance of successful service, the public wants cheap travel. The major European national railroads seem to have converged on the same solution: intercity trains are not to receive public subsidy for operations or depreciation, but subject to that constraint they should set fares to maximize ridership rather than revenue. The EU even promotes this policy – its directives on passenger rail competition do not allow state subsidies on routes with competition, but do not mandate revenue-maximizing fares.
The political pressure on international rail services is different. The riders are usually foreigners. There is no populist pressure to keep fares low, even on the many French citizens who ride trains to London and Brussels – on the contrary, any inkling of the state not extracting maximum revenue from foreigners may lead to populist pressure to increase fares.
It is possible that more competition will lower fares. This happened in the domestic Italian market, where the entrance of NTV’s Italo service reduced fares on the thicker markets. There is some competition between Paris and points east, such as Frankfurt, where SNCF runs a daily TGV, charging €45 on the 4th of February and DB runs 4 daily ICEs, charging €70-90. Averaged out, it is barely higher than the domestic TGV fare per kilometer.
Which international connections become viable?
European high-speed rail networks are largely domestic. Eurostar stands as the one major exception. What’s more, France, Italy, and Spain have already built the strongest domestic corridors; the only low-hanging domestic fruit are in Germany, where high-speed construction is desirable but is beset by economic austerity, and Britain, where it is beset by very high construction costs. The future of European rail investment is therefore international.
I do not want to claim that charging domestic TGV or ICE fares will automatically lead to ridership density comparable to that of domestic TGVs and ICEs. The language difference probably still matters, just not to the point that Eurostar’s ridership is one quarter that of the LGV Sud-Est.
Moreover, some international routes are clearly a low political priority, so the infrastructure is not optimized for them, leading to low speeds. Trains leaving Brussels going north and east run on a mixture of fast and slow lines, and overall average speeds from Brussels to both Cologne and Amsterdam are within the range for all-legacy upgraded lines. French rail planners, infused by ideas of airline executives who think trains aren’t competitive past three hours, are not trying to optimize the under-construction Mont d’Ambin Base Tunnel for intercity passenger traffic, on the theory that Paris-Turin and Paris-Milan trains would not be competitive either way.
So it’s important to get everything on an international connection right: breakeven rather than revenue-maximizing fares, infrastructure optimized for speed between different cities, sufficient frequency relative to travel time. If these are done right, then city pairs that may look weak may become attractive high-speed rail corridors: Paris-Frankfurt, Paris-Madrid via Bordeaux and Basque Country, Munich-Milan via Innsbruck and the Brenner Base Tunnel, Madrid-Lisbon, Hamburg-Copenhagen, Cologne-Amsterdam.
This is applicable in North America as well, except that there, an additional complication is border controls; the hassle must be reduced to preclearance with short lines (maximum 10-15 minutes), or ideally eliminated with a Schengen-style agreement. This affects Vancouver-Seattle and Toronto-New York, both of which look marginal if we assume international links always underperform. If we accept that New York and Toronto share a language and many cultural features and the weak air travel market is an artifact of high fares, then cross-border trains become an attractive target for investment. In that scenario, New York-Toronto is the strongest North American high-speed rail corridor not touching the Northeast Corridor – it’s like Los Angeles-San Francisco but with stronger connecting public transportation and no mountains to tunnel under.
The upshot is that, given good management, there remains a future for high-speed rail investment, with a plethora of strong lines. The EU can and should take an active role in promoting Union-wide links, ensuring that fares are within the reach of the broad public and that connections between any pair of European cities are reasonable. In North America, two specific links are strong – New York-Toronto and Seattle-Vancouver – and so the federal governments as well as the states and provinces should make sure to invest in them and to charge affordable fares with minimally intrusive border control.