How to meet the desire of the French for trains? The question is burning for the SNCF. This summer, the incumbent rail operator broke its record with 24 million passengers on the main lines. And it is rumored that he would have sold 15% to 20% more tickets if he had offered more seats. In addition, this shortage of tickets is driving up TGV prices. And this revolts public opinion, which does not understand that a 100% public company practices such tariffs.
To increase its capacity, SNCF has ordered 115 TGV M trains from Alstom, each of which offers 20% more seats. The delivery of these new trains will take place between late 2024 and early 2025 and 2032. But this will not be enough to meet the demand, which will grow sharply with the rise of environmental concerns. "And there are no plans to order additional TGV M trains. We do not have the economic capacity," says Christophe Fanichet, CEO of SNCF Voyageurs. Its means are all the more constrained since, as part of its €100 billion plan to boost the train, the executive intends to ask the operator for an increased effort: in the performance contract between the State and SNCF Réseau over the period 2021-2030, SNCF Voyageurs was to pay four billion to the rail infrastructure manager. Today, the government is reportedly considering increasing this contribution to ten billion.
Extended service life for 104 trainsets
As a result, the railway company is looking for other, less expensive ways to increase its offer. Today, its TGVs are withdrawn from circulation after forty years of maximum service. In June, she raised the idea of extending their lifespan by up to ten years.
On Thursday, she presented the outlines of this program called "Botox". "One hundred and four trains will see their lifespan extended," says Alain Krakovitch, director of TGV and Intercités. Some from two to six years, others from ten years." An operation that is not anecdotal: the SNCF has 363 TGV. "Twenty-three double-deck trains will be extended by ten years, the rest by two to six years," says Vincent Lahillade, director of industrial operations at TGV. The difference? The duplex trains are made of aluminium and, as such, do not risk corrosion. Single-deck trains, from an earlier generation, are made of steel and often suffer from corrosion after thirty years.
It takes one year of study and then two weeks to one month of work to extend the life of a TGV train from two to six years and three years of study then four to six months of work to go up to ten years
Alain Krakovitch, Director of TGV and Intercités
However, in this case, there is no question of taking risks with rolling stock more up to standard because of its age. "This program must be conducted 100% safely," insists Alain Krakovitch. Given the scale of the task, the SNCF has planned a substantial budget: between 500 million and 1 billion. These figures will be refined before the end of 2023 when the board of directors of the SNCF group will give its approval on this operation. But, if SNCF Voyageurs talks about it with its face uncovered, it is because the risk of seeing this program rejected by this body is close to zero. Because the operator expects real results. "Thanks to the Botox program, we will increase the number of places from 10% to 15% in 2032," says Alain Krakovitch. Hopefully, this will bring prices down." Without this approach, SNCF will not have many more seats for sale in nine years than it does today.
The investment is significant because it is a very heavy project. "It takes one year of studies and then two weeks to one month of work to extend the life of two to six years of a TGV train and three years of study then four to six months of work to go up to ten years," says Alain Krakovitch. The first "botoxed" trains will therefore return to service in 2026. The SNCF technicentres responsible for these refurbishment operations will be able, for the parts to be changed, to draw on ten to twenty TGVs at the end of their life that will serve as a store.
SNCF moves into uncharted territory
For trains extended from two to six years, the changes will be rather cosmetic. Seats, armrests and power outlets will be replaced if necessary. The bar and toilets will be systematically renovated. And the interior and exterior lamination of the trains will be redone. On the trains extended by ten years, the interior layout will be completely redone to the standards of the TGV Atlantique, the most recent generation of trains in circulation. And, for all trains, an inspection of the parts essential to the smooth running of the train (brakes, engine, bogies, electronics, etc.) is provided to eliminate all risks.
Because the SNCF is moving into unknown territory. There are no examples of railways extending the life of their HSRs. The company will be able to draw inspiration from the renovation operations it carries out on other rolling stock. Thus, when the government decided to relaunch night trains in 2021, the SNCF renovated a few dozen trains that were promised if not dismantling.