There is something of the hare and tortoise about the TGV and Intercités* activities of the SNCF. One is slow and discreet; the other fast and flashy. Each appeals to different types of rail traveller, with time and pricing being the differentiating factors.
Right now Intercités, the network of 325 ‘classic trains’ serving 350 major towns and cities across France, is taking on the car by introducing ‘low cost’ offers, group prices and more ‘reassuring’ night train services. “We want to improve the fare structure and the journey experience, but the objective is not to win market share from the TGV,” explains Christophe Fanichet, director, Intercités. “Instead we want to get people out of their cars and using us instead.” And with tickets for Paris-Toulouse and Deauville costing as little as €15 one way, and the possibility of reserving whole compartments at night, road users may well start thinking twice before getting behind their wheel.
Lowering the cost
In 2011, the operator dipped its toes into ‘low cost’ waters by launching its Intercités 100% Eco service between Paris-Toulouse. The offering is one train, four times a week, Friday through to Monday, with a one way ticket costing from €15 up to €30. “The usual price for single fares on this route is between 40 to 50 euros in 2nd Class, and from 80 to 90 euros in 1st,” points out Beatrice Chavanel, marketing manager, Intercités. “Yes, the journey time is 7 hours 30,” she admits, “but it would be much longer by car.”
With a total of 200,000 extra passengers taking advantage of the offer last year, it would seem not everyone is obsessed with speed, with getting from A to B as quickly as possible. Clearly there is a rail clientele, families and hard-up students spring to mind, more sensitive to price than time and happy to take longer to travel cheaper. According to data collected for the Toulouse route, 20% of its users usually took the plane or car, but switched to the train to save money, while 4% of passengers had stayed at home before because of the price barrier. Although the bottom line for Intercités is do business, the company is nevertheless delighted to be making a ‘social’ difference by making mobility more accessible for all.
Riding on the back of this success (the service is still up and running) in June this year Intercités made its second foray into low cost territory, this time offering one-way tickets from €15 for the Paris-Deauville route. Running on Saturday and Sunday, the train arrives in Deauville at 9am and returns to Paris at 11pm, giving customers a full day out at the seaside. The target audience here is mass leisure, the sea-starved Paris dweller without four wheels. “Only one out of two Parisians has a car,” says Ms Chavanel.
Keeping a lid on costs
To ensure the 100% Eco business model works, tickets are sold 100% online or by online travel agents, thus cutting out the costs of middle-man counter services. Other savings are possible since Intercités has a smaller capital stock and pays lower track fees than the TGV.
And with regards to the contract signed between Intercités and the State, who subsidises the non-profit making lines operated (based on extremely complicated calculations), these ‘low cost’ services are a case apart. In other words, the SNCF is on its own, and as such is free to build such offers at its own risk and peril. As Mr Fanichet puts it: “If we gain, it’s for us, if we lose it’s our loss.” Naturally gravitating towards markets with potential, 100% Eco is likely to be extended to further destinations in the near future. But rest assured, adds Mr Fanichet, there is no risk of the low cost product eating away at existing Intercités’ existing service base. “No, no the Eco is an added extra,” he insists.
A further incentive aimed at encouraging uptake of its services is the mini-group fare, whereby if three to five customers reserve tickets for the same journey together, the first two pay full fare, the others each €10 to €15 maximum. Introduced at the beginning of 2012, this offer is currently available for selected destinations, but likely to be extended next year.
Both 100% Eco and group travel are all about giving people more travel choices, depending on whether their priority is time or money. “You are the judge of your time,” sums up Mr Fanichet.
Intercités facts & figures
* Operating at speeds of up to 260km/hr
* Fleet of 325 trains, of which 25 run at night
* 90% leisure and professional travellers; 10% subscribers
* Intercités is part of the Proximités branch of the SNCF, which is responsible for urban, commuter and regional passenger transport.
* Carries 100,000 passengers daily; 40 million every year.
* France’s second rail network after the TGV (300,000 passengers daily)
* 38 lines
* Annual turnover of €1 billion in 2011
* Trolley services replace the bar car on all trains
* 25 night trains serving destinations including Strasbourg, Luxembourg, Nice, Perpignan, Toulouse and Rodez
Strangers in the night
One of the main reasons people are reluctant to travel by night train is the prospect of sharing their compartment with strangers. Would you go to a hotel that offered rooms to share with unknowns? Of course this communal bedroom, or dormitory, forms the basis of youth hostel culture. But not everyone wants to share their personal space so closely. Especially when train compartments are typically akin to sardine tins. To calm these fears, and to increase the current 55% to 60% occupancy rate of its 25 night trains, Intercités has made some strategic moves.
The ‘private space’ offer gives customers the option of reserving whole compartments (as is the case at many youth hostels) for peace of mind, and, a good night’s sleep (or partying among friends and family!). Pricewise, how does it work? In 2nd Class, for groups of four paying passengers upwards, the space can be reserved for an extra €40; in 1st Class, from one paying passenger upwards, it costs €70 (€50 for two paying passengers and €40 for three). Since business travellers appear to like this option, 22% of 1st Class capacity on the trains are available for this ‘private’ use, while in 2nd Class, 10% is offered, more for families and groups of friends.
Also to seduce the night hawk, the so-called espaces dame seule, or ‘lady alone spaces’ is proving extremely popular with women travelling alone or with children. Already 90% occupied, the number of compartments available for this complementary service is being increased, particularly in 2nd Class, to meet demand.
To complete the improved night train experience, to make that bunk just a little more ‘home from home’ is the introduction of new duvets (think comfort blankets). Selected based on passenger feedback, the attention to detail is quite incredible: they are thicker and warmer, with 12, more robust snap fastenings instead of the previous 10, and tagged with an RFID chip for monitoring!
Would you take a night train?
* “Why not? But there has to be a bar open because I won’t be able to sleep.”
* “No. Because of security. I would be afraid of being robbed or feeling uncomfortable with people I don’t know. I would feel more vulnerable travelling at night. It’s easier for people to steal when you are sleeping.”
* “Of course. Last time I travelled with my wife and kids – we were four in a compartment for six. The other two were men – one was nice, the other less so. But everything was fine.”
* “I adore night trains. Because I gain time – if I have to make the journey and it’s in the daytime I’m wasting time, so it’s better to sleep. Also because I sleep easily, and because I am a man!”
Take the time to… go slow
In a world where the tendency is to tout fast rail as the best way to go, it is refreshing to see that a slow and cheaper alternative can still be had. The TGV may well be a media darling, but there is certainly room for less glamorous, yet wholly satisfactory, ‘slower travel’. With its choice fare offers and enhancements to the travel experience, this summer and beyond, Intercités is determined to win the race with the car, slow and steady.
*for more information (in French) visit www.intercites.sncf.com