Paris’ Roissy-Charles De Gaulle Airport (CDG) is the world’s second-busiest airport by international passenger traffic (fifth overall), but it lacks a direct, express connection into the city center via train. Rather, it offers slower regional train connections via the RER B and TGV high-speed rail services to other cities in France – just not Paris. This oversight, which makes it almost as quick to get to CDG Airport from Lille, in far northern France (220 km in 50 minutes on the TGV), as from center city Paris (26 km in 35 minutes on the RER), is a result of a TGV bypass around the capital, which happens to run directly under the airport.
But the French government wants to correct the problem with a new express train that it has been planning since 2000. Unique in French history, the project will be entirely financed, constructed, and operated by a private consortium, likely to be the construction group Vinci, which was the only company to bid for the right to build the line. The 32 km-long service will operate on its own tracks (7.7 km newly constructed) parallel to RER and TGV lines, and require the construction of a new tunnel through northern Paris as well as a new terminus station at the airport. The 600€ million project will only commence after currently planned improvements to the existing RER line have been completed.
By 2015, the project will offer trains running between the Gare de L’Est (East Station) in Central Paris and Terminal 2 at the airport in twenty minutes, at a frequency of every 15 minutes. Ticket prices may be up to 20€ one-way, far higher than the 8€ or so charged for an RER ride.
Typically, I’m steadfast in my opposition to private ownership or operation of public infrastructure. There are very good reasons not to let profits undermine the service quality of utilities such as mass transit.
Yet, I highlighted the problems with using federal government ARRA stimulus funds for the Oakland Airport Connector out in the Bay Area two months ago, and the same problems would apply here if this project were being built with the funds of taxpayers in France. Airport transit connectors are generally used by the wealthier elements of society, their high construction costs prevent the building of better-used lines, and they often generate less ridership than expected. In other words, spending big money connecting an airport to a city center via fast train involves big risks and produces little social equity.
So what’s exciting about this project is that it leverages only private funds to pay for a project for which the public has little reason to pitch in. Vinci, along with its partners Keolis, Axa, and La Caisse des Dépôts, will spend its own money to build the project, purchase its own train equipment, and make its own profit (or lose its own money). Since airport service is already provided by the relatively cheap RER and since these new trains will be used by the better off (mostly tourists), I see no reason not to allow a private company to take financial risks to make it happen. The government’s willingness to share right-of-way seems like a fair concession for a project that will increase transport options to the airport, but which doesn’t require a public sacrifice. All in all, a pretty good deal.