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France's Regional TER Train Service

A blistering report by the French national audit office finds France’s regional train network to be seriously degraded, with little time to improve.

Though it may not be as glamorous as the high-speed, double-decker TGV, the TER (Transport express régional) is an important part of France’s transport infrastructure.

The TER network runs 7,000 trains over 20,500 km of track, serving 5,000 stations. It carries 900,000 passengers a day.

Since 2002 the service has been run by the administrative regions.

Last month, France’s national auditor, Cour des Comptes, released a damning report revealing grave problems that threaten the councils’ continued control of the system.

The report follows on from the findings of an earlier report in 2018 which predicted the closure of many small lines owing to the low levels of usage and high levels of cost.

In the most recent assessment, the authors underline that more and more money is being spent on a transport system that carries fewer and fewer passengers.

The report finds that 285 of the TER’s stations welcome on average just 3 passengers a day.

Many of the stops being made are at stations that are entirely deserted, and large numbers of trains are circulating with only a handful of passengers on board.

The auditors blame a fall in passenger numbers on a number of factors, most notably the fact that the railway was built at a time when the train was the only mode of motorised transport available to the majority.

In recent years the transport system has changed significantly. The new Macron inspired national coach service is in place, and France’s successful car share (covoiturage) scheme carries hundreds of thousands each year, whilst France also has the best motorway network in Europe.

But the report also considers that another contributory factor has been the poor punctuality of the TER trains due to the condition of the tracks. Many carriages are also in a poor state.

Neither have the numerous and ongoing strikes by railway workers helped. Strikes on the TER took place in 2014, 2016, 2018 and there is a current dispute also taking place, all of which have further eroded passengers’ trust in the service and reluctance to use it.

Despite a reduction in passengers, financing of the service has continued to increase, with the taxpayer picking up most of the bill. 

The TER has a budget of €8.5 billion, of which 88% is funded by government subsidies, with only 12% from the passengers.

The report comes at a time when the TER is supposed to be preparing for an opening up of the market in 2023, a move that could see the regions lose out to competitors promising to provide a much-improved service and infrastructure.

Despite the problems, the report acknowledges that improvements were made in recent years, as the number of trains had increased, many carriages had been restored, and tracks and stations updated.

SNCF, France’s state-owned railway company, admits that a further €6.9 billion is needed to bring the tracks back to a state where trains could achieve the same speeds achieved in the past.

Yet SNCF also disputes elements of the report, stating that in 2016-2017 there was a small increase in passenger numbers. In 2017, they also launched a vast plan to transform the TER which led to higher levels of customer satisfaction in 2018.

However, the auditors consider that these efforts have been insufficient to prepare the TER for the upcoming competition.

They make a number of recommendations, most notably that the respective roles of the regions, the state and the SNCF need to be more clearly defined in terms of their financial responsibilities.

In addition, they suggest that the regions be offered the opportunity to become the owners of these transport systems that in practice they are already having to pay for.

Other areas for review are improvements to service quality, an increase in ticket prices, a reduction of superfluous staff, and an analysis of the lines that are minimally frequented to decide whether to continue with them.

The time available to realise these changes, however, is short.

A new European law coming into force in 2023 will see the running of the regional railway open up to external competitors.

If the report is right, and things continue as they are, it seems entirely possible that the TER could soon find itself with new owners - if anyone wants it.

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This article was featured in our Newsletter dated 08/11/2019

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