Business, Economics and Jobs

France launches budget high-speed trains


France's national rail company SNCF head, Guillaume Pepy (R) and Valerie Dehlinger (G) director of the 'Ouigo' project, pose in front of the new low-cost TGV high-speed train 'Ouigo' at the Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris on Feb. 19, 2013


Jacques Demarthon

In an effort to boost ridership on its high-speed rail system, France is offering a new low-cost service, with fares from the Paris suburbs to the Mediterranean coast for as little as €10 ($13).

Ouigo (as in "We Go"), an independently run subsidiary of the SNCF, France's national rail company, will begin operation on April 2. SNCF President Guillaume Pepy calls it the best high-speed rail deal in the world, according to La Tribune.

Ouigo will operate its own trains, with more frequent service than the SNCF currently offers. To allow for such cheap fares, it will adopt the budget travel model offered by airlines like easyJet and Ryanair.

That means cutting service and adding fees. Passengers can bring only one small bag (about the size of an airplane carry-on) and a purse or backpack.

In a move reminiscent of Spirit Airlines' $100 carry-on bag fee, if a traveler waits until boarding time to pay for an extra bag, there's a €40 charge. If done ahead of time, the cost is only €5.

Seating in a car with outlets costs an extra €2; getting information about a reservation via the phone requires another €1, according to Le Monde.

Reservations can be changed for €10 (€20 if done on the phone), but not fully reimbursed, and there is no food or drink service on the train.

Another tradeoff for taking Ouigo is that its Paris hub is in Marne la Vallée (where Euro Disney is located) — a €7.30 trip from the city center on the RER, Paris' commuter rail system. Ouigo stations in Lyon, Marseille, and Montpellier are much more central.

As Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic points out, the SNCF has no competitors in the domestic market, and Ouigo is meant to target travelers who prefer driving to taking the train. (Many of those potential customers own their own cars and live in the Paris suburbs, so the extra RER trip is a minor factor.)

Only 10 percent of all Ouigo tickets will be priced at €10; the rest will cost at most €85, according to Freemark. But for those travelers who snatch up the reduced tickets, it's an excellent deal — especially when France's expensive road tolls and gas prices are accounted for.

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