Short-hauling: Spanish regional airline Air Nostrum wants to operate high-speed rail routes

As short-haul flying is mostly a tedious, uncomfortable experience with lots of queuing and waiting, while at the same time a growing number of consumers have become more conscious about the environmental impact of air travel, the popularity of high-speed rail as an alternative to short-haul flying has steadily been growing.

Compared to air travel within a range of around 700 kilometer, high-speed rail means less hassle, because of direct connections between city centers, lighter security and luggage regulations, and a much more comfortable journey.

In Europe, for example Eurostar’s London-Amsterdam service – which was launched in April this year – has proved such a success that the train operator expects to operate a third and possibly even a fourth daily service from next year on.

And on many city pairs, high-speed rail now has a much higher market share than air travel. For example, between Madrid and Barcelona, 65 percent of the market has moved to high-speed rail, while ItaloTren has a market share of 75 percent between Milan and Rome. In Japan, the Shinkansen for a long time has a market share of over 85 percent on the routes between Tokyo and Osaka and between Kyoto/Osaka and Fukuoka.

And as Google Flights nows shows Deutsche Bahn as alternative to a flight when searching for a fare between for example Amsterdam and Frankfurt (a journey of over 400 km), ‘short-hauling’ via high-speed rail is on track for further growth.

High-speed rail as feeder
Several airlines and rail companies are already working together to provide travellers with a seamless ‘intermodal’ connection, effectively using high-speed rail as feeder service to long-haul flights.

For example, Lufthansa Express Rail is a collaboration between the airline and Deutsche Bahn and provides passengers with an integrated booking from 8 destinations throughout Germany to and from Frankfurt Airport. This means reserved seats on the train, remote baggage check-in, plus a guaranteed connection. Lufthansa will expand its Express Rail service to 20 German destinations by mid-2019.

European rail liberalization
Since 2010, EU rules have opened the international passenger rail market to competion, but member states have until the end of 2020 to liberalize their domestic train travel markets.

In the meantime, state operators such as SNCF (OuiGo) and Renfe (EVA, planned) are launching low-cost high-speed rail brands to defend their position against new entrants such as Flixtrain in Germany and the planned GetLink service between London and Europe.

Regional carrier as high-speed rail operator
Between Spain and Southern France an unxpected candidate – regional carrier Air Nostrum – in September 2017 filed an application to operate high speed rail services from Madrid’s Atocha rail station to Gare de Montpellier-Saint-Roch in Southern France, with its subsidiary ILSA (Intermodalidad de Levante SA).

Air Nostrum currently operates as a franchisee for Iberia as Iberia Regional from its main base Valencia Airport (with hubs at Barcelona and Madrid-Barajas) with a fleet of 40 Bombardier CRJ jets and 6 ATR-72s.

Saying it can operate the routes faster and offering fares that are 10 percent cheaper, the Air Nostrum subsidiary has applied to run two trains each way per day, calling at Madrid, Zaragoza, Barcelona, Perpignan, Narbonne, and Montpellier with 347-seat AVE S-100 trains leased from Spain’s national rail operator RENFE.

The distance between Madrid and Montpellier is just over 700 km and Air Nostrum’s projected travel time by rail will be 5 hours and 45 minutes. Currently no airline is operating scheduled flights between the two cities.

According to the application, the international route linking the regions of Languedoc-Roussillon, Midi-Pyrénées, Cataluña, Aragón and Madrid has a potential market of 5.2 million passengers per year, but ILSA’s CEO Víctor Bañares argues that the current RENFE service is not commercially attractive, with an evening arrival in Montpellier poorly suited to business travel.

ILSA’s proposed schedule would also make it compete head-to-head with RENFE for domestic travel between Madrid, Zaragoza and Barcelona, as part of the overall international route. Spanish regulator CNMC last month approved Air Nostrum/ILSA’s application because at least 20 percent of the international route is operated outside of Spain and international traffic accounts for at least 30 percent of ridership and a similar proportion of revenue, meaning that Air Nostrum/ILSA in theory could start operations.

However, El Pais reports that despite the authorization of the CNMC there are currently no trains to start operations. So far, RENFE has been reluctant to assign some of its S-100 trains and even liquidated its rental subsidiary to avoid having to do so. Air Nostrum/ILSA reportedly is now looking for rolling stock in Italy.


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