double interview

Ulysse Fret: Is France on the right track to drive rail freight growth?

Railway works in France. Image: © Shutterstock. Altitude Drone.

Never before has France invested as much money in the development of rail freight as it is doing now. Senior executives at rail network manager SNCF Réseau point out a potentially game-changing, multi-year, multi-billion investment programme named Ulysse Fret.

In an interview with Railfreight.com, Laurent Marseille, who heads the programme and Paul Mazataud, SNCF Réseau’s rail freight director, highlighted the scale and scope of Ulysse Fret and where the four billion euros earmarked for its implementation is set to be allocated over the next decade.

“Ulysse Fret is the product of very close, ongoing collaboration between rail freight players – represented by industry bodies such as the French Rail Freight Alliance of the Future (4F) and the Groupement National des Transports Combinés (GNTC) – the French state and SNCF Réseau,” says Laurent Marseille.

“The guiding principle is to improve the performance of the network to enable the preservation of current rail freight traffic and provide scope for its development.”

Strong focus on combined transport

The programme encompasses investment projects in numerous areas: track access private sidings; work on gravity-fed marshalling yards, service lane tracks and ‘last-kilometre capillary lines; digitalisation of management tools; loading gauge modernisation; combined transport terminals; and network capacity enhancement.

“Combined road-rail transport being the main driver of rail freight traffic, there is quite naturally within Ulysse Fret a strong focus on projects to facilitate its growth, for example, enhancing access to combi terminals and adapting loading gauges to handle semi-trailers,” Marseille notes.

Also high on the agenda are projects to improve existing capacity by offering better-quality freight train slot paths and increasing capacity to allow the network to accommodate traffic expansion.

Intermodal terminal in France. Image: Shutterstock. © olrat.

Public and private sector financing

Mazataud explains that the Ulysse Fret programme makes very little provision for investment in new infrastructure, with the emphasis being put rather on the renewal and modernisation of what already exists.

Of the 4 billion euros package, the French government has pledged 2 billion in state funding, with the remaining 2 billion to be sourced from French regional and local councils and the EU. SNCF Réseau’s financial input will be minimal and centred on service/access lanes.

The private sector – shippers, logistics companies and investment funds specialising in infrastructure will also contribute, particularly to the development of ‘combi’ terminals such as the one recently commissioned in Miramas, near Marseille – Terminal Ouest Provence.

Rather than making a fixed sum of capital available each year of the programme, funding will be released as individual projects are launched.

Terminal Ouest Provence. Image: © Open Modal.

Already ‘live’

While some industry quarters have expressed disquiet over a perceived delay in the publication of a report finalizing the projects to be supported by Ulysse Fret (it is now scheduled for September), Mazataud prefers to underline the fact that the programme entered its operational phase some time ago. “We’ve been ‘live’ since 2023. A lot of projects within the programme have already been launched, attracting several hundreds of millions of euros of investment.”

He highlighted “30-40 million euros of funding in 2023 on capillary lines and even more this year” and also on service lane tracks (37-38 million euros) and “several tens of millions of euros each year on the digitalisation of train slot paths and traffic management.”

In the combi segment, the inauguration of a terminal in Vénissieux, near Lyon, is scheduled for the end of this year, and another, at Les Aubrais, near Orléans, will follow in 2025.

Intermodal terminal near Bordeux, France. Image: Shutterstock. © Fly_and_Dive.

One main funding mechanism is the Contrats de Plan Etat-Région (CPER) – financing agreements signed between the State and French regional public authorities. These provide a good deal of visibility as they cover investment plans over five-year periods.

A prime example of such agreements is in the Brittany region, where 64 million euros will be invested between 2023 and 2027 to increase rail freight traffic sixfold by 2050. “Other Ulysse Fret projects will be launched within the framework of CPER and cover the period 2028-2032,” Marseille added.

Progress in loading gauge projects

SNCF Réseau has also faced criticism that work within Ulysse Fret on modernising loading gauges, essential to the development of combined transport in France, would not begin until well into the next decade.

“This is simply not the case. There are several such ‘gauge’ projects already underway,” Marseille underlined. He alluded to the Atlantic-facing freight corridor with the modernisation of the Livernan Tunnel on the Angoulême-Bordeaux line in support of the Cherbourg-Mouguerre rail motorway and in the Vosges region of eastern France.

“Others will follow throughout the programme and beyond. These projects are large-scale, time-consuming undertakings, but we can already point to progress, and this will continue,” he added.

No aid in disguise

Rail freight companies’ operating costs have been swollen by energy price hikes and high inflation, putting their bottom line under pressure. However, Mazataud made it clear that the funding made available through Ulysse Fret would not be spent on subsidising such costs.

“The French authorities already provide assistance in several ways; contributing to track access charges and supporting single wagon and combined transport activities. Ulysse Fret’s key focus is on investment in and managing rail freight infrastructure. It is completely disconnected from the business models of rail freight companies,” he stressed.

Construction on French railway infrastructure. Image: Shutterstock. © GiulianiBruno.

Spending on a different scale

Will 4 billion euros be enough to take rail freight in France to a new level over the next decade and make a real impact in doubling its market share of goods transport at the expense largely of road haulage?

Mazataud is non-committal but points out that investment in rail freight in France has taken on a new dimension since 2021 and is gaining further momentum with Ulysse Fret.

“With this programme, we have a flow of investment working out at 400 million euros per year over the next decade. This compares with the 2010s, when we were typically spending 10-30 million euros annually. Clearly, investment has moved on to a different scale, enhancing the prospects of making significant progress in the sector’s development,” says Mazataud.

SNCF Réseau is seeing “very positive signs” that shippers and logistics companies are rekindling their appetite for rail freight while others are discovering it for the first time.

“Our role in piloting Ulysse Fret is to oversee projects designed to provide the necessary capacity and infrastructure to accommodate the projected increase in demand. If we achieve this over the duration of this investment, we will have accomplished our mission,” he concludes.

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Author: Stuart Todd

Stuart Todd is a correspondent and frequent contributor for RailFreight.com

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Ulysse Fret: Is France on the right track to drive rail freight growth? | RailFreight.com
double interview

Ulysse Fret: Is France on the right track to drive rail freight growth?

Railway works in France. Image: © Shutterstock. Altitude Drone.

Never before has France invested as much money in the development of rail freight as it is doing now. Senior executives at rail network manager SNCF Réseau point out a potentially game-changing, multi-year, multi-billion investment programme named Ulysse Fret.

In an interview with Railfreight.com, Laurent Marseille, who heads the programme and Paul Mazataud, SNCF Réseau’s rail freight director, highlighted the scale and scope of Ulysse Fret and where the four billion euros earmarked for its implementation is set to be allocated over the next decade.

“Ulysse Fret is the product of very close, ongoing collaboration between rail freight players – represented by industry bodies such as the French Rail Freight Alliance of the Future (4F) and the Groupement National des Transports Combinés (GNTC) – the French state and SNCF Réseau,” says Laurent Marseille.

“The guiding principle is to improve the performance of the network to enable the preservation of current rail freight traffic and provide scope for its development.”

Strong focus on combined transport

The programme encompasses investment projects in numerous areas: track access private sidings; work on gravity-fed marshalling yards, service lane tracks and ‘last-kilometre capillary lines; digitalisation of management tools; loading gauge modernisation; combined transport terminals; and network capacity enhancement.

“Combined road-rail transport being the main driver of rail freight traffic, there is quite naturally within Ulysse Fret a strong focus on projects to facilitate its growth, for example, enhancing access to combi terminals and adapting loading gauges to handle semi-trailers,” Marseille notes.

Also high on the agenda are projects to improve existing capacity by offering better-quality freight train slot paths and increasing capacity to allow the network to accommodate traffic expansion.

Intermodal terminal in France. Image: Shutterstock. © olrat.

Public and private sector financing

Mazataud explains that the Ulysse Fret programme makes very little provision for investment in new infrastructure, with the emphasis being put rather on the renewal and modernisation of what already exists.

Of the 4 billion euros package, the French government has pledged 2 billion in state funding, with the remaining 2 billion to be sourced from French regional and local councils and the EU. SNCF Réseau’s financial input will be minimal and centred on service/access lanes.

The private sector – shippers, logistics companies and investment funds specialising in infrastructure will also contribute, particularly to the development of ‘combi’ terminals such as the one recently commissioned in Miramas, near Marseille – Terminal Ouest Provence.

Rather than making a fixed sum of capital available each year of the programme, funding will be released as individual projects are launched.

Terminal Ouest Provence. Image: © Open Modal.

Already ‘live’

While some industry quarters have expressed disquiet over a perceived delay in the publication of a report finalizing the projects to be supported by Ulysse Fret (it is now scheduled for September), Mazataud prefers to underline the fact that the programme entered its operational phase some time ago. “We’ve been ‘live’ since 2023. A lot of projects within the programme have already been launched, attracting several hundreds of millions of euros of investment.”

He highlighted “30-40 million euros of funding in 2023 on capillary lines and even more this year” and also on service lane tracks (37-38 million euros) and “several tens of millions of euros each year on the digitalisation of train slot paths and traffic management.”

In the combi segment, the inauguration of a terminal in Vénissieux, near Lyon, is scheduled for the end of this year, and another, at Les Aubrais, near Orléans, will follow in 2025.

Intermodal terminal near Bordeux, France. Image: Shutterstock. © Fly_and_Dive.

One main funding mechanism is the Contrats de Plan Etat-Région (CPER) – financing agreements signed between the State and French regional public authorities. These provide a good deal of visibility as they cover investment plans over five-year periods.

A prime example of such agreements is in the Brittany region, where 64 million euros will be invested between 2023 and 2027 to increase rail freight traffic sixfold by 2050. “Other Ulysse Fret projects will be launched within the framework of CPER and cover the period 2028-2032,” Marseille added.

Progress in loading gauge projects

SNCF Réseau has also faced criticism that work within Ulysse Fret on modernising loading gauges, essential to the development of combined transport in France, would not begin until well into the next decade.

“This is simply not the case. There are several such ‘gauge’ projects already underway,” Marseille underlined. He alluded to the Atlantic-facing freight corridor with the modernisation of the Livernan Tunnel on the Angoulême-Bordeaux line in support of the Cherbourg-Mouguerre rail motorway and in the Vosges region of eastern France.

“Others will follow throughout the programme and beyond. These projects are large-scale, time-consuming undertakings, but we can already point to progress, and this will continue,” he added.

No aid in disguise

Rail freight companies’ operating costs have been swollen by energy price hikes and high inflation, putting their bottom line under pressure. However, Mazataud made it clear that the funding made available through Ulysse Fret would not be spent on subsidising such costs.

“The French authorities already provide assistance in several ways; contributing to track access charges and supporting single wagon and combined transport activities. Ulysse Fret’s key focus is on investment in and managing rail freight infrastructure. It is completely disconnected from the business models of rail freight companies,” he stressed.

Construction on French railway infrastructure. Image: Shutterstock. © GiulianiBruno.

Spending on a different scale

Will 4 billion euros be enough to take rail freight in France to a new level over the next decade and make a real impact in doubling its market share of goods transport at the expense largely of road haulage?

Mazataud is non-committal but points out that investment in rail freight in France has taken on a new dimension since 2021 and is gaining further momentum with Ulysse Fret.

“With this programme, we have a flow of investment working out at 400 million euros per year over the next decade. This compares with the 2010s, when we were typically spending 10-30 million euros annually. Clearly, investment has moved on to a different scale, enhancing the prospects of making significant progress in the sector’s development,” says Mazataud.

SNCF Réseau is seeing “very positive signs” that shippers and logistics companies are rekindling their appetite for rail freight while others are discovering it for the first time.

“Our role in piloting Ulysse Fret is to oversee projects designed to provide the necessary capacity and infrastructure to accommodate the projected increase in demand. If we achieve this over the duration of this investment, we will have accomplished our mission,” he concludes.

You just read one of our premium articles free of charge

Want full access? Take advantage of our exclusive offer

See the offer

Author: Stuart Todd

Stuart Todd is a correspondent and frequent contributor for RailFreight.com

Add your comment

characters remaining.

Log in through one of the following social media partners to comment.