France’s SNCF launches a program to develop its stations into integral parts of the cities around them
There are three thousand active intercity rail stations in France, and though most of them are found in the center of the towns they serve, they aren’t always effectively connected to their surroundings in terms of services and public transit. The French national rail company, SNCF, which owns all of France’s stations, wants to make its properties more than just transportation hubs and transform them into town centers.
SNCF’s new Gares et Connexions (“Stations and Connections”) initiative was the result of a European Union directive which will open up international rail links to competition beginning in 2010. Because SNCF’s TGV lines will be competing directly with Deutsche Bahn’s ICE and a likely new entry from Air France for routes between France and the rest of Europe, the E.U. requires a separate agency to manage the stations, which will serve all train services. France chose to let SNCF create an affiliate to solve this problem.
Though I’ve argued in the past that train operations probably should remain public, there is absolutely no question that stations should, so it’s refreshing to see that even with the opening up of the rail market in Europe to private competition, the stations are staying government-run; Germany has taken a similar path.
But what’s more exciting about SNCF’s plan is that it foresees a future in which the train station truly becomes the hub of a community’s activity. SNCF President Guillaume Pepy said “The Stations and Connections agency will let us invent tomorrow’s train station, which will at be the heart of all transportation activity: true places of exchange and complementarity between different modes. Equally, they’ll be the heart of the city, where they\’ll become places of life and services for users, centers of dense and environmentally-friendly urban neighborhoods.” He is right in arguing that stations have the potential to be great gathering places as serve many uses more than simply transportation – New York’s Grand Central Terminal is a case in point. It will be exciting to watch SNCF’s program transform France’s stations into similarly fantastic places for daily life.