DECRYPTION. Are train tickets really that expensive?

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The French are adamant: train tickets are too expensive. And at a time when more than 25 million of them board the TGVs for their holidays, the argument emerges with force. Especially since, according to a report published last week, the train is sometimes more expensive than the plane… How to explain it? Response elements.

Connecting Paris to Marseille on August 17 (date chosen at random) will cost you 23 euros by plane. By train, it will be 69 euros, for an extra 1 hour and 48 minutes. This observation, established by tapping a few minutes on the Internet, is surprising, even infuriating. And above all incomprehensible to the rail customers that we are.

The prices charged by the SNCF are regularly, and especially in summer, deplored by many French people. On April 26, a poll reported that 53% of respondents believe that the price of the train has increased in recent years. And 58% said they wanted lower prices. Specifically, according to INSEE, this year the price of a train journey has increased by 8%. Figures disputed by the SNCF, which limits this increase to 5%, which it attributes largely to the effects of inflation.

Be that as it may, the message of overpriced trains seems to have been, in part, heard by the government. Thus, on the occasion of the first major departures of the season, Clément Beaune, Minister of Transport, had promised discounts on Intercity and TER tickets. But not on the TGV, which nonetheless establishes itself as the most popular holiday train. Indeed, in the summer of 2022, SNCF had sold 23 million long-distance tickets (TGV and Intercités). And this year 2023 promises to be a record.

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How to explain it? “When you add up all the ticket sales prices, it has to cover all the costs, namely the purchase of the train, the electricity, the driver’s cost and the conductor’s cost,” he explains to The shipment, Patricia Perennes, economist specializing in rail transport. Added to this is the maintenance of tracks, trains and stations, as well as the cost of materials necessary for the proper functioning of the network.

Also, as a private company, SNCF has to generate profits, which is why some tickets are more expensive than others even if they connect to the same stations and are taken for the same date. In fact, ticket prices fluctuate based on the booking date, the occupancy rate, the law of supply and demand (the “yield management”) and inflation. That is why it is often recommended to buy tickets as early as possible and with flexible dates. And again, most of the price of a TGV ticket is found elsewhere.

“When you buy a ticket, you also buy a right of way on a railway,” explains Bruno Gazeau, president of the National Federation of Transport User Associations. Indeed, in France, railway companies have to pay for the use of the railway tracks and pay the tolls. In total, these tolls represent 40% of the price of train tickets. And theirs could still increase. The Transport Regulatory Authority (ART) announced on 24 February an increase in railway tolls for the coming years: +7.5% in 2024 for TGVs and +8% for TERs…

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Less polluting, but more expensive, this paradox is also being pointed out at the moment of the ecological transition. In a report published last week and which made headlines, the NGO Greenpeace established that the price of a cross-border connection by train was 2.6 times more expensive than the plane! According to Greenpeace, the fault lies with the lack of “adequate taxation” to favor low-carbon transport to the detriment of air transport which would be fiscally favoured. In this “war” between iron and air, the government took a first step last spring, banning airlines in the event of an alternative of less than 2.5 hours by train. “We will continue,” assured Clément Beaune. But at what cost?

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