“Congestion is the enemy of GNP. We must bear this in mind. Political decisions that go against mobility go against GNP” – Jérôme Dubus, Paris city councillor, 17th district.
“Autonomous vehicles are not the privilege of big cities. We have projects planned or ongoing in Rungis, Saclay, and Verdun” – Coralie Renard, head of sales and marketing – autonomous transport systems, Transdev.
“Despite our name, we’re not promising the moon but a system that could help ease congestion on existing rail routes” – Emeuric Gleize, CEO, SpaceTrain.
A round table on March 15, organised by students on the M2 Affaires publiques – Promo 2017/2018 course at Université Paris-Dauphine, explored how tomorrow’s mobility might impact territoires, together with the socio-economic issues at stake.
Back to the future?
Inspired by the French Aérotrain project of the 1960s/70s, the brainchild of Jean Bertin, the team behind SpaceTrain is hoping to rehabilitate the existing elevated track near Orléans, restore then use it to test run a prototype shuttle.
Emeuric Gleize reckons the whole venture will take four years from bringing the track back into service and building the prototype to testing it, reviewing certain technology bricks and making design improvements. “Then we should be in a position to propose something credible,” he says.
“Competing with SNCF [French Railways] isn’t part of our game plan,” he added. “We’re looking more to export SpaceTrain.” Nevertheless the team has studied its potential in France, e.g. for the saturated Paris-Le Havre line. “Could our shuttles provide a solution in partnership with SNCF for easing congestion on this route for both goods and passengers?”
Something that’s really changed over the past 30 years, both in France and elsewhere, is urban flow,” said Jérôme Dubus. “More and more people are moving to metropolitan areas and most cities are struggling to cope with this influx.”
“We are heading towards gridlock,” he added. “Congestion is a reality today. It’s not going away and it’s the enemy of GNP. We must bear this in mind. Political decisions that go against mobility go against GNP.”
Cars aside, coping with transport demand is a headache for Ile-de-France (Paris and its region) since the public transport system – certain metro and RER commuter lines, bus routes (yes, bus rage is a reality) and tram services – is struggling to keep up. More, much more capacity is urgently needed.
The Grand Paris Express (GPE) – 200km of new-build automatic metro – will double the reach of the Paris metro in 10 years. The burning question is, will transport then catch up with needs?
“The original Aérotrain was designed with single shuttles capable of carrying 40 passengers,” pointed out Mr Gleize. “SpaceTrain’s revised system envisions capacity for between 120 and 150.”
Autonomous shuttles are not big on capacity – “between 12 to 15 or 16 riders per shuttle for the most advanced, Level 4 models,” according to Coralie Renard. “But this isn’t the point. They are not a mass transit mode and won’t replace rail or metro systems.”
Participating in the round table via video, Bruno Gazeau, president of the French Federation of Transport User Associations (FNAUT), made clear where his priorities lie. Defending the rights of passengers over new technologies, he insisted on the importance of focusing efforts on boosting the efficiency of public transport systems, on intermodality and fares.
The original construction costs for the GPE were estimated at 21 billion euros. They have now risen to 37 billion and the project is five years behind schedule. This goes to show just how expensive rail infrastructure is in terms of investment, let alone operations further down the line.
“Public authorities are not immune to costs,” insisted Mr Dubus. Breaking down the figures for the GPE, he said the State is providing 4 billion euros and local authorities 1.6 billion, with businesses in Ile-de-France footing the rest, largely through the transport tax (versement transport, VT). “So you see the private sector is already massively funding the project.”
“High speed lines [HSL] are criticised for their cost per kilometre,” pointed out François Mortier. According to Statistica, in 2014 it cost almost 20 million euros per kilometre to build the LGV Méditerranée, the HSL serving the South of France.
In comparison, Emeuric Gleize puts a price tag of around six million euros on one kilometre of track for the SpaceTrain.
“We need innovation from the private sector. Public money can no longer do it alone. We are now in a mixed model scenario,” said Mr Dubust.
Note: for contruction of the Paris-Bordeaux HSL, opened in July 2017, a public-private partnership (PPP) model was used; a first in France for a HSL.
Operations cost, too
The 200km GPE network will cost between 500 and 700 million euros a year to operate, of which 30% will be generated by passengers (ticket sales). The rest is likely to be covered by increasing the VT for businesses.
“Autonomous vehicles can be used to offer services today where in the past they were financially complicated,” said Ms Renard. By “complicated” one presumes she means not enough passengers and loss-making.
An interesting dichotomy. Not enough passengers means less fare revenue = bad news for operators. No drivers means no salaries to pay = good news for operators and one reason they’re looking at AVs with a keen eye.
To be fair, there is a case to be made for AVs as first-/last-mile journey fillers, ideally by taking riders on from public transport to their homes and vice versa, without recourse to private cars.
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses'” – Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company
Into the crystal ball
By around 2028, Mr Dubus expects urban motorways to be on way out, largely thanks to tactics like reducing parking spots in cities to squeeze out cars and pedestrian zoning.
Congestion charging is another approach ongestion – “that works quite well, but calls for bold political decision making since people living outside cities will be ‘penalised’ and have to pay to drive into town. Obviously this kind of approach isn’t necessarily a popular decision.”
Its high-speed rail crown may have slipped over the years, yet France is picking up pace in another mode. “Out of the six dominant AV manufacturers worldwide today, three of them – easyMile, Navya, and Lohr/Transdev – hail from the Hexagon,” said Ms Renard.
Mr Dubus believes new technology mobility like autonomous shuttles should enable better links between the different transport modes – from mass transit to walking and cycling.
Furthermore, as shared modes they should also free up the public space for other purposes by reducing private car use. “It’s important new technologies like AVs enable us to recapture urban space, which includes more room for walking, cycling and other improvements like planting vegetation.”
For Mr Gazeau, the most pressing need over the next five years will be to join up rail and urban transport networks: “This is the big challenge”. Other priorities, he believes, should be service convenience, quality, and frequency.
On a final note, Mr Dubus mentioned the elephant in the room. “There’s still the issue of freight. In France everything is transported by trucks. Road haulage will continue to dominate for decades because we don’t have any solutions.”
“Yes, but we do have plenty of ideas,” said François Mortier, deftly wrapping up the session.
Watch the whole round table live here (video by SpaceTrain, thank you for the share)