In 2018, the Spinetta report recommended massively closing small lines, seen as money pits. Five years later, various railway players believe they hold the key to their rescue, or even their revival: cleaner and better sized rolling stock, therefore lighter, offering flexibility of use, thanks to modernized signaling and switches. .
“A revolution”, promises François Agoyer, director of the technological innovation program at the SNCF. The company intends to put into service, between 2026 and 2029, an “innovative light train” with a capacity of 80 seats and which, depending on the region, will be electric or hybrid (hydrogen, but able to use electricity from catenaries).
“Twice as light as the TER, it will be equipped with an innovative ground connection allowing it to roll while maintaining the comfort of the passengers, whatever the state of the track”, he assures. This train will be able to serve regional cities using the main network.
The country tram
SNCF is also developing two “very light” train projects. Expected for 2027, Draisy is intended for local services or lines with low traffic, which the regions, organizing authorities, can now decide to operate themselves. Bringing together the driver’s cab and a passenger area with 30 seats, this autotrain will be able to connect a landlocked area to a station on the main network, using a dedicated track.
The security system will be similar to that of trams, less restrictive than for conventional trains, which need long distances to stop (more than 3 km for a TGV launched at 320 km/h).
Ditto for Flexy, promised for 2026. Designed to facilitate possible reopenings of the line, this 14-seater shuttle will be able to leave the rails at level crossings, in order to use the road network and offer transport on demand. “The driver will tour the surrounding towns to pick up passengers, then join the track”, enthuses François Agoyer.
Arnaud Montebourg wants to run cars on the rails
Also encouraged by the State, within the framework of investments for the future, other players are betting on a lighter, more flexible offer. This is the case of Taxirail, which designs autonomous hydrogen-powered shuttles, and the Société d’ingénieur, de construction et d’exploitation de la Ferromobile.
Allied in particular to Alstom, Stellantis and Systra (an engineering subsidiary of SNCF and RATP), this start-up chaired by former minister Arnaud Montebourg is adapting a production electric car, the Peugeot Traveler (8 seats, approximately 50,000 € the unit), to allow it to run on the road and on rails.
La Ferromobile designs autonomous shuttles based on Peugeot Traveller. / Sicef
Here, no professional driver but one of the users who borrows the vehicle, Autolib style, then picks up other passengers on the way. “Once the car is on the track, this driver becomes a simple passenger and the shuttle circulates automatically”, specifies Arnaud Montebourg.
A first line of 35 km should see the light of day at the end of 2024-beginning of 2025 in the Aude or the Pyrénées-Orientales. “10 million people live less than 10 km from a railway line and could benefit from the Railroad”, ignites the former Minister of the Economy, who sees in it “an ecological and political issue, a response to the yellow vests”. The operating costs will be, he maintains, “three times lower than those of the TER, two times lower than those of the coaches”.
Reinventing the economic model of short lines
The common goal of these projects is to get the small lines out of a vicious circle summed up by François Meyer, general delegate of Fer de France, the spokesperson for the rail industry: “Trains with very few people, a supply that is shrinking and attracts fewer users…” Gear which led to putting the train on a drip, observes the economist Yves Crozet. “Each kilometer traveled triggers €27 in subsidies, compared to €10 in Germany…”
To reinvent the economic model, the SNCF, like the start-ups, assumes that the lightness of the equipment (2 t, for example, for a Railcar, against 60 t for a TER) will reduce track wear and limit maintenance. But these arguments leave skeptical Éric Tassilly, vice-president of the Federation of railway industries, author of a report on small lines. “Many borrow works of art. Are we going to maintain a tunnel or a viaduct less because the train is light? »
The Flexy, scheduled for 2026, will be able to leave the tracks at level crossings to travel on the road. / SNCF
“Even if they offer more flexible use of infrastructure and better timing, these various projects respond to a niche market,” says Bruno Gazeau, president of the National Federation of Transport User Associations. “They can provide part of the solution, complementary to carpooling and express bus lines around metropolitan areas. “A caution shared by Yves Crozet: “It would be illusory to imagine reopening small lines on a massive scale. Especially since some have been transformed into cycle paths. »
Small lines integrated into future metropolitan RERs
Even more than innovations, the future of the small lines will depend on the budgets which will be reserved for them within the framework of the railway plan announced by the government in February and which provides for 100 billion euros of investment by 2040 to regenerate and modernize the network.
“Priority will go in particular to lines that connect medium-sized towns to a metropolis, such as Épinal-Nancy and its 6,500 travelers per day, anticipates David Valence, radical deputy of the Vosges and president of the Infrastructure Orientation Council. Others, serving municipalities in the second or third crowns, will no doubt be integrated into the metropolitan express networks (or metropolitan RERs, editor’s note) that the executive intends to develop. »
The elected official pleads for “a case-by-case examination of the ecological benefit”. In the balance, there is the replacement of diesel trains, very present on the 9,000 kilometers of small lines – rarely electrified – and which consume more than one liter of fuel per kilometer.
But rail – with 1 trip out of 10 – already represents only 0.3% of CO2 emissions in France, compared to around 16% for private vehicles. “What must be taken into account is the real potential for decarbonization: can we capture a significant fraction of the people who, today, take the car? Failing that, a bus system may be more appropriate. »
Hydrogen trains in Occitania from 2024
“To choose the rail supposes to propose many round trips so that the users are not afraid of finding themselves stuck if they miss their train, advance Éric Tassilly. You have to have the political courage to put the package on some lines and close others… The German and Swiss examples show that it pays off. »
Political courage, for Carole Delga, president of the Occitanie Region, also means “experimenting with all the solutions” likely to give small lines a chance. A land of welcome for the Ferromobile, its region should also be “the first to see rolling – from the summer of 2024, between Montréjeau and Luchon (Haute-Garonne) – a hydrogen and electricity train”.
In the meantime, at the end of August 2022, on the right bank of the Rhône, Occitanie reopened to passengers the connection between Pont-Saint-Esprit (Gard) and Avignon, a line reserved for freight for half a century. Travel time: 30 minutes, compared to 50 minutes by car. Attendance (250 people per day for five round trips) is modest, given the 13 million euros invested to renovate stations and secure level crossings.
But the elected PS is counting on “a rise in power”, with an extension to Nîmes and, from 2026, ten stations served (compared to three today), as well as proactive TER prices (“journeys at 1 € maximum for employees, free for those under 26). Carole Delga believes in it: “With the summer influx of tourists, this line will quickly reach 200,000 travelers per year. »
lines in danger
Small lines are about one-third of the French rail network welcoming passengers, i.e. 9,000 km out of a total of 28,000. They represent 17% of regional train traffic.
Most of them are single track (78%) and non-electrified (85%).
Their rails and tracks are old on average 40 years.
Among the 200 small linesthe average attendance is less than 30 passengers per train.
The cost of TER (operation, investment, etc.) – part of which uses the small lines – reaches 8.5 billion euros: 88% is covered by public subsidies (3.9 billion paid by the regions and 2 billion for the State).
Sources: Ministry of Ecological Transition; Court of Auditors, 2019; Spinetta report, 2018.
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