Will the coach conquer France?

Which way travel? In France, both domestic and international journeys are now possible… by coach.

On July 10, 2015 the French National Assembly adopted the Macron Law, a bill designed to ‘remove barriers hampering the country’s economy, open up sectors, boost economic recovery, and develop employment.’

One of the dispositions that has since come into immediate effect is the partial opening up of coach services to competition.

Up until now it was forbidden to run domestic coach lines in France, essentially to keep any challenges to rail services offered by French Railways (SNCF) at bay.

Henceforth, coach companies can take advantage of open access on routes over 100km.

However for shorter itineraries, Arafer, the national regulator for rail and roads, will examine whether or not the new offer is likely to threaten the viability of existing rail offers.

“France is a country that has always focused on rail, with its tightly meshed network, high-speed services, and so forth,” points out Anne Yvrande-Billon, vice president, Arafer. “But this focus has been to the detriment of other transport modes.”

Nevertheless despite this reshuffle, in a country with a rail network rated one of the best in the world,  the train (after the car) still rules… for the time being at least!

According to a survey*, 84% of the French travel long distance nationwide by car, yet 68% say they are prepared to drive less with coach services open to competition.

SNCF ramps up with OuiBus

Several transport operators have clearly been preparing to grasp the opportunity of this market reform. Most notably SNCF, which stands to lose rail passengers. Hence the reason for the ramp-up of its existing coach subsidiary, iDBus, running since 2012.

Launched on September 1, 2015, the revamped service has been baptised OuiBus to align it with OuiGo (high-speed rail) and OuiCar, SNCF’s other low cost offers.

By the beginning of 2016, when operations should be fully up and running, the company will propose:

  •  a fleet of 127 coaches
  •  130 links, of which 85 are new
  •  35 cities served in the Hexagon, plus a further 11 in Belgium, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, the U.K., and Switzerland

Low cost appeal

To gain customers, a number of factors have been taken on board. The high frequency of daily services – between 5 to 16 return trips, depending on the route – is one. Fares, of course, is another.

With tickets priced (for a limited promotional period only) from just €5 for France, and from €15 for international trips, the services are bound to attract attention.

Booking is possible across all media – online at ouibus.com and voyages-sncf.com, by smartphone, at ticket offices.

‘To keep boarding stress at bay’, passengers are allocated a specific seat when booking.

If a coach is cancelled or its departure delayed by over one hour, passengers are offered alternative travel options or a full refund. A €10 voucher compensates arrivals over one hour late.

Comfort & the environment

All the coaches provide free Wi-Fi and are air conditioned.

Tested in person by Passion 4Transport, the ‘XL’ seats, with 75cm spacing and individual power socket, feel comfortable enough, although it remains to be seen how passengers will fare on a packed coach over the course of a trip.

But then again, limited space and comfort are one of the downsides of low cost travel

Likewise the rule for bags is similar to the ‘no frills’ air model – one piece of hand luggage in the coach, plus one large item in the hold, for free; any extra must be paid and booked for in advance.

Come early 2016, the fleet will comprise 49-, 57- or 74-seat vehicles by Setra, Irisbus, Irizar, Scania, and Mercedes. Of these, eight will be double deckers running between Paris-Lille-London.

All the coaches currently operating meet the Euro 5 standard for emissions, and ‘will gradually switch to Euro 6,’ points out OuiBus, ‘which will mean their level of C02 emissions will be akin to that of the train.’

Riding safe

While the figures show coach travel is safer than cars, motorbikes, bikes, trams, and even pedestrians, to allay any fears on this score OuiBus says all its 400 drivers (referred to as ‘captains’) undergo 400 hours of training before taking the wheel. Furthermore, they are obliged to take a breathalyser test prior to every departure.

In terms of the coach itself, special safety equipment includes emergency braking assistance, a distance regulator, a system for preventing the crossing of white lines, a reversing camera, and video protection.

Covering all operating angles

On the operations front, the OuiBus control room, baptised the ‘Base Care’, is a modest set-up (compared to rail) located at Gare de Bercy (railway station and terminus) in Paris.

The two monitoring posts are occupied by operatives (both men and women) working in shifts 24/7 and connected in real time with the captains and passenger information systems (PIS) of every vehicle on the road. Computer screens display the movements of the coaches, their locations and speeds.

Pascale Longin (right) heads the OuiBus control room

One of the downsides of coaches, compared to trains, is their lack of private infrastructure space. This makes them vulnerable to circumstances such as road works, jams, and delays caused by accidents, weather conditions, and so forth.

To counter this weakness, the operatives at Bercy have direct access to the ‘live’ traffic status of all the coach routes. This enables them to stay ‘one step ahead’ of potential disruptions to the OuiBus services.

If necessary, they can contact the captains – messages immediately displayed on the dashboard – to inform them of a problem on the road ahead and suggest alternative paths.

It’s then up to the captain whether or not to reroute, informing his or her passengers all the while to ensure they are kept in the loop.

On the road

All in all, the services proposed by OuiBus appear to tick the right boxes for such a low cost offer – pricing first and foremost, followed by service frequency, comfort, safety, plus a spot of environmental awareness.

However only time will tell if every aspect of the package lives up to expectations. Just how good is the Wi-Fi connectivity? How reliable the journey times? Is there real customer demand out there?

Guillaume Pepy (left), president, SNCF with Roland de Barbentane (right), managing diretor, OuiBus

“OuiBus is a low-cost offer that doesn’t compromise on quality,” SNCF president Guillaume Pepy told the press on September 3. “The role of a state-owned company such as ourselves is to offer all modes of transport without sacrificing quality or the environment.

“The train is our DNA,” he hastened to add, “but if we want to win a new customers we have to develop our offer.”

Fair enough, but OuiBus is not alone in eyeing this new opening…

Leader of the pack?

In June 2015 Transdev, which already offers long distance coach travel in Europe via its subsidiary Eurolines, launched isilines – a coach service designed specifically for the French market. And the mission statement presented on this occasion – ‘Transdev aims to remain the leader in the coach transport market’ – says it all.

isilines is running 17 lines serving over 50 cities across France. Coupled with the 600+ destinations covered by Eurolines in Europe, of which 96 French cities, Transdev is sure to give SNCF a good run for its money!

Eyeing expansion

Another operator gearing up to win slices of the pie is Megabus.com, already an established player in the field.

In August 2015, this subsidiary of the Stagecoach Group  announced the launch of nine new domestic journeys in France (it already provided a service between Paris and Toulouse) to the cities of Mulhouse, Lyon, Avignon, Montpellier, and Perpignan.

Tickets are priced from just one euro (promotions only) – ‘less than the price of a cup of coffee.’

All services operate using ‘state-of-the-art’ vehicles with free Wi-Fi,  power sockets, air conditioning, and a toilet.

“Our low fares will help put millions of euros back into the pockets of consumers through savings on their travel, and our investment in France will also support new jobs,” says Edward Hodgson, managing director, megabus.com.

“This is the first phase of our plans for domestic services within France and we look forward to expanding our operations further in the future to benefit people across the country.”

In May 2015, the company opened a new operating base in Belleville-sur-Saône, north of Lyon,  creating 35 jobs.

Different business model

To complete the picture, Flixbus announced its arrival on the French market in May 2015.

Providing a sales platform for long distance travel, this German company – a start-up rather than a transport operator – runs its services through partnerships with independent coach firms. And such a business model has already proved itself a winner – 10,000 daily connections to 300 destinations in 15 countries are currently on offer.

In June 2015, Flixbus released details of its ongoing expansion of connections to and from France, together with further plans for new lines to Lyon, Marseille, and the Côte d’Azur.

New transport order

The French government says it hopes this new coach order will facilitate travel for the entire population by proposing a cheaper alternative to other transport means, as well as boosting the development of inter-regional public transport.

How popular the new services will prove remains to be seen. As will the impact on rail.

Will SNCF suffer a drop in revenue as its passengers board this low cost travel alternative? Or instead will a new equilibrium be established between the mix of modes on offer?

“For the railways, this opening up to competition may, or may not prove a problem,” comments Pierre Cardo, president, Arafer. “Unlike the implications of the 4th Railway Package [which includes the proposal to open up domestic passenger railways to new entrants and services from December 2019], this bill means competition is coming from a different transport mode, rather than from within the rail sector itself.

“As for the travelling public,” he adds, “well, it means they are being given a wider choice in terms of fares, journeys, and modes. And it’ll be up to them to choose.”

Bringing coaches into the French fold represents a real change, and challenge, to the country’s established way of doing transport. Watch this space…

 

*carried out online in August 2015 by Next Content/OuiBus, involving a sample of 1,000 French participants

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