Fancy a blitz on the midnight express to Biarritz? Just hop aboard the 11pm at Paris-Montparnasse and you'll be able to dance Le Roc, drink all night in the bar and play cards while the wheels skip along at 300km an hour. If you don't fancy Biarritz then there's Perpignan, Nice and Marseilles to choose from with iDnight, the latest wheeze from SNCF, the operator of France's fabulous TGVs.
"Trains are so exciting today. We want to make the travel experience great for the young, for students, for everyone," declares Guillaume Pepy, SNCF's chief executive and arguably the most powerful railway man in Europe – and certainly the most charming. He's not just head of SNCF but chairman of both Eurostar, which runs the trains under the Channel, and Railteam, the new alliance between eight of Europe's biggest operators that aims to shrink the Continent by linking 400 cities with 9,000km of rail.
Yet Pepy still has time for parties and he's not in the slightest worried that iDnight, due to start in April, will turn into raucous, drunken fests. "Non, non!" he says, horrified at the thought. "This is France. The French don't do that. They know when to stop, to control their drinking." He sighs: "Not like some of the Eurostar special ski-trains."
IDnight (say "idea night") emerged from one of the regular brainstorming sessions that Pepy holds with staff to drum up new ideas. "I ask them to imagine they are a competitor to SNCF and what they would do to hurt us – what they would change and how." It was in this way they also came up with Zen and Zap on France's double-decker trains – passengers can choose the haven of a Zen seat or more buzz in the Zap. Either way, it's about choice. "Our passengers are also consumers. Railways have got to be like any other brand or service, and more like airlines. So you can have luxury or low-cost carriers à la Ryanair."
On Pepy's wishlist are bubble-wrapped TGV tickets that you buy in supermarkets as a gift – like a CD or a DVD – or "train miles" from shops or on credit cards. There's nothing he can't imagine – deals with Tesco, a brand he really admires, or Apple and Orange. And there isn't anything he wouldn't steal from the low-cost airlines. Ryanair-style slashing of tickets has helped push TGV occupancy rates to record levels, with three-quarters of all seats taken on the 800 daily trains. A ticket on the three-hour Paris-Marseilles route can be as low as £15, while on some routes, such as the Paris-Brussels, the journey time has been cut so much that there is only one direct air flight left.
The TGVs carried 100 million passengers last year and accounted for a third of SNCF's revenues, Pepy expects 10 million more on his trains this year.
His tactics are clearly working. SNCF made a profit last year of €595m (£444m) – a proper commercial return without hidden French state subsidies and, like any other rail operator, it pays a tariff to the government for renting the track: 30 per cent of revenues. The one black spot is freight, which bleeds money. Pepy is tackling this with a massive restructuring and new plans to put freight beside passengers on off-peak trains.
Appropriately, we meet for dinner at the Aurora in the Great Eastern Hotel, perched above Liverpool Street Station, one of the UK's oldest and busiest commuting hubs. Apart from being tempted to kidnap Pepy to run Network Rail or our train companies, I want to know how we can transform our expensive and dirty British trains into the slick, sexy and cheap French ones? "Perhaps you are too negative," he says politely. "Surely they are not that bad." I assure him they are, specifically the trains below us from Cambridge to Liverpool Street – which take longer today than 20 years ago. Nor can you buy a drink, let alone dance.
Railway men clearly stick together because Mr Pepy is diplomatic. "You now have the HS1 from St Pancreas; that's a great achievement and there will be more high-speed lines in time. But, you know, we have problems too in France with what I call our 'classical' ancient trains and stations. All of Europe was guilty of under-investment in our railways in the 1970s and '80s. It is a problem we face together."
It's a problem Pepy came to in the 1990s. A graduate of France's prestigious Ecole Nationale d'Administration, he worked as a judge before being tempted by France's greatest cultural asset, after its wines. "Then SNCF was loss-making, a sad and miserable place, but today we are very optimistic." His SNCF badge sits proudly on his lapel.
But his biggest dream is making Europe smaller. "Imagine the day when you can take the train from St Pancras to Prague – its 1,000 km so it can be done in three hours. Or from St Pancras direct down to Seville with only a few changes and in a few hours – isn't that amazing?"
It is up to Railteam to realise this vision. Each kilometre of high-speed track will cost £11m to build, but over the next 12 years, the operators plan to invest £100bn in new lines, tripling the routes to 9,000 km.
If Railteam can achieve its plans, then trains really will become a serious competitor to planes and there will be radical changes to how we travel. "And we are greener," he says. Less than 10 per cent of cross-border journeys are presently on rail so there is far to go.
Pepy calls it the Hop on the Next service and work has begun on integrating ticket buying, transfer times and tolls so trains and passengers can travel seamlessly. But this process throws up huge challenges too, such as working out common tolls, drawing up timetables and ironing out national quirks on the simplest issues – the Germans like to buy tickets on the day while the French buy in advance
Railteam has to get it right because new players are prowling. In two years, Europe's frontiers will tumble with the arrival of "beeg bang", when international services are to be thrown open to a free-for-all, as the UK has already experienced. Just as the TGVs have stolen tactics from Ryanair, so Pepy believes Air France, BA or Virgin, or even a brand like Apple, will go for the high-speed market. "We are seeing a new golden age of railways. Of that I am sure."
He is also sure SNCF will stay forever part of the French state. "Left and right both agree on this – there are no politics. SNCF is part of our heritage." And with that, Pepy dashes off to his car, leaving me to brave the trains.Reuse content