The TGV network put France at the forefront of European intercity rail technology for decades. Early investments, starting in 1981 with high-speed tracks between Paris and Lyon, led to explosive growth in ridership throughout the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s. But since then, usage has stagnated. Domestic ridership in 2009 and 2010 was 100 million; so was domestic ridership in 2016, on a larger network. There was a 10% increase in 2017 when the line to Bordeaux opened, but in 2018 ridership stagnated again. In the late 2000s, there was more ridership on the TGV than on the intercity trains in Germany; now, German intercity trains approach 150 million annual riders, and are not far behind the TGV in passenger-kilometers, Germany running slower trains and thus averaging shorter trips.
I’ve heard a number of different explanations for why TGV ridership has not increased in the last ten years, many of which involve management; I, too, complain about managers who are recruited from the airline industry. But I submit that there’s a deeper, conceptual reason: the TGV is only workable for thick markets, mostly connecting Paris with a major provincial city. Trains run mostly nonstop, and there is no seat turnover. From the 1980s to the late 2000s, ridership rose as more cities were connected to Paris, but then those markets were mostly saturated, and new markets cannot be served adequately.
The TGV hit a wall about ten years ago. This is important, because as the busiest high-speed rail network outside of China and Japan, it has a lot of cachet. Politicians and rail planners propose programs that look much like the TGV network. This is of especial importance in the United Kingdom, which is replicating the TGV’s operating paradigm with the under-construction High-Speed 2 project; in the United States, the geography of the Northeast Corridor has meant that plans look more like the Japanese paradigm, which works better both in general and in the Northeast’s specific context.
In Japan, Germany, and the United States (by which I mean the Northeast Corridor), trains stop at many major cities on one route.
The fastest Shinkansen trains between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka have always stopped at Nagoya and Kyoto. Tokyo-Osaka passengers ride end to end, but many riders go between Tokyo or Osaka and Nagoya, so the seat turns over. Some of these trains continue west to Hakata, with such intermediate stops as Okayama and Hiroshima. The upshot is that the trains don’t just connect these cities to Tokyo, but also to one another. The size of Tokyo means there is demand for very high frequency to Shin-Osaka and decent frequency to Hakata; passengers on intermediate city pairs like Nagoya-Okayama or Kyoto-Hiroshima benefit from infrastructure that those city pairs could never justify on their own.
In Germany, intercity trains generally serve more than two major cities too. Like in France and unlike in Japan and the US, some major cities have stub-end stations, most notably Frankfurt; trains do not skip these cities, but rather serve them, reverse direction in about 5 minutes, and continue. Passengers may reserve seats but do not have to do so, so each seat has an electronic display showing for which portion of the trip it is free for the use of any passenger with an unreserved ticket.
France works by a different principle. Paris, Lyon, and Marseille are collinear, but trains do not serve all three cities. Trains from Paris to Lyon do not continue to Marseille; trains from Paris to Marseille rarely stop at the Lyon airport and never stop at Lyon Part-Dieu, which is on a branch from the Paris-Marseille mainline. There are separate trains between Lyon and Marseille, running generally hourly. Hourly frequency is workable on a line that takes about 1:40 end to end, but is not great.
At least Lyon and Marseille are on the same line coming out of Paris. Trains between Lyon and Lille, 3-3.5 hours apart on opposite sides of Paris, have service gaps of 2-2.5 hours most of the day. Lyon-Strasbourg trains on the LGV Rhin-Rhône lose money – the two cities alone do not have the ridership to fill trains, and there are no transfers with other cities nor larger intermediate cities than Mulhouse.
It’s too late for Paris 21
Berlin Hauptbahnhof is a through-station with service to cities all over Germany; every intercity train to Berlin serves Hauptbahnhof, regardless of which direction it comes from. This is common elsewhere in Germany, too. The second most important stub-end station, Stuttgart, is currently being replaced with an underground through-station at great cost, in a controversial project called Stuttgart 21. The most important, Frankfurt, long had plans for a similar through-station dubbed Frankfurt 21, and recently the federal government announced new plans for such a project.
Paris could have built a Paris 21, or Paris Hauptbahnhof, in the 1970s or 80s. When the city designed the RER, it ripped up Les Halles to build the Chatelet-Les Halles transfer point. The station is palatial: 25 meters underground, with 7 tracks and 4 platforms, 2 of which are 17 meters wide. This was so expensive that the Auber-Nation segment of the RER A, consisting of 6 km of tunnel and the Chatelet-Les Halles and Gare de Lyon RER stations, cost in today’s money around $750 million per km, a record that is yet to be surpassed in a non-English-speaking country.
Planning for the TGV only began in earnest in the late 1970s; the RER was constructed in the late 1960s and 70s, Les Halles opening in 1977. Perhaps the initial omission of intercity tracks was understandable. But the RER D opened in the early 1990s, and by then SNCF should have known it would have a national TGV network. It could have at the very least spent some money on having 2 platforms and 4 tracks at Les Halles dedicated to intercity trains, running through from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon. But it didn’t, and now there’s so much regional traffic that repurposing any part of Les Halles for intercity trains is impossible. Moreover, given the cost of the station in the 1970s, a future Paris 21 project would be unaffordable.
The TGV has to live with infrastructure decisions made 30 years ago. Given this reality, some of the kludges of the system today are understandable. And yet, even in outlying areas, there are no scheduled connections with either other TGVs or regional trains. Paris-Nice TGVs are timed to just miss TERs to Monaco and Ventimiglia. The Mâcon TGV station is located at just the wrong place for a transfer to a future extension of the LGV Rhin-Rhône south to Lyon. Other than Part-Dieu and Lille-Europe, major secondary cities do not have urban stations designed for through-service.
The contrast here is partly with German or Japanese practice: Japan built Shin-Osaka to enable through-service from east to west of Osaka without spending too much money tunneling into city center, and Germany serves Kassel at Wilhelmshöhe instead of at Hauptbahnhof since Hauptbahnhof is a stub-end station.
But the contrast is even more with the practice of smaller European countries. Switzerland and the Netherlands do not have anything as voluminous as Paris-Lyon, so they had to design their intercity rail networks around everywhere-to-everywhere travel from the start. Switzerland, too, had much less growth in the 2010s than in the 2000s, but ridership and p-km both grew, and are continuing to grow. What’s more, Switzerland has not tapped out its strongest markets: Lausanne, Luzern, and Geneva are still poorly integrated into the national timed transfer plan.
Getting it right from the start
France boxed itself into a corner. Its high-speed rail infrastructure is designed to connect provincial cities to Paris but not to one another. In some places, it’s possible to retrofit something more usable with the construction of new transfer points and the planning of better timetables. But elsewhere, as in Paris, it is too hard. This suggests that other countries that look to France as a model learn not only from the success of the TGV but also its more recent failures, and get it right from the start.
Any of the following lessons are useful to Britain and to other countries that are building large high-speed rail networks:
- Try to limit branching, to make sure city pairs have adequate frequency. This is especially important on shorter city pairs, such as London-Birmingham, planned to take 38 minutes, and Birmingham-Manchester, planned to take 40 minutes. Adding a few minutes to the trip time of through-trains is fine if it makes the difference between hourly and half-hourly frequencies, or even half-hourly and quarter-hourly frequencies.
- Place stations at good points for transfers to other trains. This includes trains on the same network, for which the best locations are branch points, and legacy trains, for which the best locations are major legacy stations and junctions. For example, the largest cities of the East Midlands – Nottingham, Derby, and Leicester – lie on a Y-shaped system, so it would be valuable to place a hub station at the node of the Y; the currently planned East Midlands Hub is 3.5 km north of the node, not on the leg of any of the three main cities.
- If there is a major city with service going in multiple directions, make sure it has a single through-station, even if constructing one requires a new tunnel. This is less relevant to Britain, since London is at the south end of the network, but is relevant to Italy, which needs to convert multiple urban terminals into through-stations, and Spain, which is doing so at Madrid and Barcelona already, at a fraction of the cost of Stuttgart 21.
- At short range, run trains as fast as necessary – that is, spend a lot of resources on getting trip times between major nodes to be just less than an hour, half an hour, or an hour and a half, but don’t worry too much about 55 vs. 40 minutes in most circumstances. This way, passengers can interchange at major nodes in a short time.
For a generation, the TGV was the envy of the rest of Europe. But it tapped out the strong markets that it was designed around, and now SNCF has its work cut out for it adapting to the needs of other city-to-city travel markets. Other big countries had better take heed and do it right from the start to avoid boxing themselves the way France did.