The first high-speed railway in continental Europe connected Paris with Lyon. In 1981, the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) began a rail revolution by halving the time between the two biggest French cities. In 2013, another seismic shift takes place, again from Paris to Lyon. The difference this time: it's a no-frills revolution.
From April, French Railways (SNCF) will launch a Ryanair-style offshoot. First class is being ripped out of the trains being converted to operate the service, and the trains themselves will work harder. At present, the TGV fleet rarely perspires, being used typically seven hours a day, covering around 900 miles. These targets will be doubled for the new trains.
SNCF insists passengers organise all the ticketing themselves. Passengers with the temerity to bring aboard more than one bag face extra fees. And the stations planned for the new venture are miles away from the cities they purport to serve. Visitors to Disneyland Paris may already be familiar with the rudimentary northern hub at Marne-la-Vallée. Anyone leaving the southbound train at its first stop, Lyon, will discover they are at a third-rate gateway to France's second city: neither the splendid Gare Perrache, nor the modern Part-Dieu station on the eastern edge of the city centre. Instead, trains will serve Lyon's airport, Saint-Exupéry, half an hour away at the far end of Europe's most expensive tram ride (€13 each way, if you're tempted).
Why the odd departure and arrival points? Partly because train operators, in common with airlines and bus companies, have to pay to use terminal space. In city centres, this can constitute expensive infrastructure which feeds through to higher fares. I suspect, though, that an equally important motive is to minimise "cannibalisation" of existing traffic – in other words, to deter price-sensitive passengers who currently use the TGV between Paris and the Mediterranean from switching to the new, cheaper trains.
The news reached me through the new September edition of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable (£14.99). The editor, Brendan Fox, says: "I expect it will succeed as there are always travellers who want to travel at the cheapest price." If Mr Fox is right, might British passengers find themselves shivering on the platform at Willesden Junction in north-west London waiting for a train to Birmingham International (the station for the NEC)? Unlikely, says Mr Fox: "Marne-la-Vallée and St-Exupéry are ideally situated on high-speed lines. I doubt if operators in the UK will want to start trains at out-of-the-way places to offer cut price tickets."
Glum in Seat 61
What does "The Man in Seat 61" make of SNCF's new wheeze? He is, of course, Mark Smith, whose website (seat61.com) helps travellers to organise rail travel abroad. You might well imagine that the rail guru would be all in favour of fresh, low-cost options for train passengers. In fact, he is appalled: "It's the city-centre terminals and lack of fuss over luggage that is attracting passengers off planes and back on to the rails. SNCF is trying to copy the worst things about air travel that we know passengers hate, such as terminals way outside the cities they serve and having to pay extra for any baggage."
Cent sent into exile
My efforts to get some answers from SNCF about the new enterprise – such as its name and the planned fares – have proved in vain. But while waiting for press officers to fail to respond, I made a couple of surprising discoveries from an interview with the SNCF president that I tracked down on the conglomerate's labyrinthine website.
The first is that French Railways has sent the cent into exile. The president, Guillaume Pepy, announced a decision "to eliminate cents from our prices, because they're confusing. Going forward, all fares will be round numbers". I hope the rounding is downward as well as upward. More extraordinary was Mr Pepy's response to an innocent question from a traveller complaining about having to pay €20 when he left his Fréquence pass (a discount card) at home. The SNCF president blew a fuse. "This is France, the land of fraud," he thundered, blaming his fellow countrymen for trying to "game the system". He said fraud on trains amounts to nearly €300m a year, which I make a remarkable £450 per minute.
Perhaps the president is right in his assertion that "France is the European champion of fraud – maybe not the world champion, but certainly the European champion".