Ouigo: welcome to troisième classe

The man who pays his way

Seven months ago, you may recall, I revealed the French rail authorities' plan to take on the budget airlines. While five out of six citizens have travelled on a Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) at some time in their lives, only one in four takes a high-speed train during the course of a typical year. The first no-frills train is scheduled to depart on Easter Monday. The parent company, SNCF, could accurately have called it troisième classe, but instead settled on the awkward Franglais name "Ouigo".

The mastermind is the SNCF president, Guillaume Pepy. In a bid to make rail travel "hyper-accessible", he is cutting fares "between the Paris region and south-eastern France" to as little as €10 for a journey of up to 500 miles. So how does he do that, then? By pinching ideas from the low-cost airlines and adding new twists to extract a few extra euros from his passengers.

First, strip out first class and install 100 extra seats into a TGV, raising capacity by one-fifth. Insist that everyone books online and prints out their own ticket. Cut down on luggage space, and restrict baggage to less than easyJet's cabin allowance; extra cases cost €5 booked in advance, or €40 at the station. Charge €2 to plug a laptop or phone into the on-board mains. And set a check-in deadline half an hour before departure; if the no-frills airline example is followed, missing the cut-off is likely to prove expensive.

Next, sweat your assets: the de-frilled rolling stock will run at the usual high speed, 186mph, and cover close to 2,000 miles a day – around twice as far as existing TGVs. The two on-board guards, responsible for checking tickets, will be expected to take their meal breaks on the move, rather than spending time off at a station. Très Ryanair. As the crews chew, their trains will hurry to stations that have plenty of spare capacity. "The Paris region" means Marne-la-Vallée, the station serving Disneyland, 25 miles east of the Eiffel Tower. A connecting train from the Magic Kingdom to the capital costs €7.30. Add the shocking €13.50 tram fare from Ouigo's version of "Lyon" (actually Lyon airport) into the city, and anyone who grabs a €10 fare between France's two biggest cities could spend more than twice as much travelling to and from the centres.

La guerre commence

Ouigo passengers travelling at 186mph may notice their train being overtaken by a Boeing 737 doing 500mph. The new train to Marseille competes with Ryanair's French domestic network. The Irish airline flies to Marseille from an airport it calls "Paris-Vatry (Disneyland)" – nearly 100 miles east of the French capital. Fares as low as €10 are easily available in April.

"Ryanair welcomes all competition and passengers can now decide between slow high-cost rail and fast low-cost air travel," says a spokesman for the airline. The plane gets there in 75 minutes, beating the train by two hours. You then have to reach your final destination, of course. Oddly, the nearest big station to Marseille airport is Aix-en-Provence TGV, which is another Ouigo gare (and, perhaps predictably, nowhere near the historic Provençal city).

The rail guru Mark Smith, founder of the Seat61.com website, says: "This is a train for flyers, not those who enjoy the relaxed nature of 'regular' rail travel. I wish they'd stop doing this nonsense which distracts from the task of running one coherent, integrated system."

The schedules could scarcely be less convenient for British travellers hoping to transfer to the new low-cost services. While thrill-seekers can travel direct from London to Disneyland, no-frill seekers will face at least a four-hour wait for a cut-price French connection to the south.

Reading matter

For rail passengers on this side of the Channel, Easter will bring a harvest of "train routes you never thought you'd see again", such as Oxford to Torquay and Basingstoke to Penzance. Because of the rebuilding of the Great Western rail hub at Reading, trains in and out of London are taking some exotic routes. Waterloo is temporarily restored as gateway to Cornwall (as it was in the Sixties, with the Atlantic Coast Express). Main-line travellers from Paddington to Bristol, Cardiff and all stations to Swansea will be treated to a detour through the Chilterns to Banbury, where the train must reverse to run down to Oxford and eventually rejoin the main line at Didcot.

"A great deal of planning goes into minimising disruption for our passengers," says the Association of Train Operating Companies.

But no doubt some passengers who find themselves aboard trains dawdling in north Oxfordshire when they should already be in London or Bath will arrive in Banbury cross.

Suggested Topics
News
Hillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Sport
wimbledonScot will face Ivo Karlovic next
Life and Style
Kissing
life
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    Day In a Page

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test