Thalys IZY: market segmentation is not the same as competition

tn_eu-thalys-izy-graphicSo Thalys – whose rail service always strikes me as the worst combination of anglo-saxon economics and Belgian service – has a new wheeze. A new, lower cost, but slower train between Paris and Brussels, branded IZY (Easy – geddit?) It’s like Thalys’s version of OUIGO, the low cost TGV that is owned by SNCF and has been running since 2013 from Marne-la-Vallée near Paris.

Thalys has hired two additional tri-voltage TGV railsets from SNCF, stuck a bit of a new green and purple livery on them, and put the bar carriage out of service, and opened its new low-cost brand. It will only run Brussels-Paris-Brussels, and tickets will only be sold online. Standard tickets should normally be €19 single, and what IZY calls “XL” (i.e. what was first class) will be €29. You will also be able to book tickets without a guaranteed seat (€10) and for the pull down seats in the vestibules (€15). How much luggage you can bring is also limited.

It’s also worth noting that while normal Thalys does have onboard wifi, these TGV sets they have hired for IZY do not, and none of their publicity material for IZY mentions this – so count on no wifi on IZY for now.

There will be 2 departures each way each day weekdays, and 3 each way each day weekends. The journey time will be between 2 hours 8 minutes and 2 hours 30 minutes, in comparison to just 1 hour 22 minutes in the regular Thalys – this is because IZY will use old lines rather than the high speed line north of Paris to reduce costs.

Basically IZY, like OUIGO, is a segmentation exercise. Thalys is aimed at business customers (it’s a cash cow as it transports all of the tax exiles from Brussels to Paris for work), while tourists find it horribly expensive – and increasingly prefer the cheaper but considerably slower coaches between Brussels and Paris instead, not least because the coaches also have on board wifi. IZY is Thalys’s effort to do something about that, and entice some people back onto the train. However Interrail tickets will not be valid on it.

Notably neither OUIGO nor IZY are actually competition on the rails – they are low cost offerings from the same firms that are already the monopoly providers. Even though IZY will pass towns like Arras on the old line it will use, it will not stop there… because if it did it would compete with SNCF’s TGVs. So Thalys has its low cost brand, IZY, to help protect its own market, and SNCF has the same with OUIGO. SNCF is happy to lease 2 TGV sets to IZY… because SNCF has a 60% stake in Thalys. You get my drift. Each protects its own monopoly.

Now there would of course be two radically different ways to achieve the same end – to get more people onto the rails, and off the roads.

One would be for the state owned Thalys (it’s 60% SNCF, 40% SNCB owned) to actually increase capacity on its regular trains, rather than increasing prices at peak times as it does now. At peak hours Thalys is already jammed, and has eye wateringly high prices – some double deck trains might help there. The odd thing about SNCF, and hence Thalys by extension, is that for supposedly public service companies, they behave like anglo saxon capitalists in their pricing structure.

An alternative would be for a company other than one owned by SNCF to actually run its own trains on Brussels-Paris. But DB’s Velaro ICEs are not cleared for 300km/h in Belgium, and DB has ducked ever competing with SNCF, and Trenitalia’s plans are pie in the sky for the moment. Look at Milano – Roma, where Italo competing with Trenitalia has increased capacity, improved service, and driven down prices – that would be very welcome on Brussels-Paris.

Don’t hold your breath that either of those options are going to happen any time soon though!

More reading about IZY: Izy budget Paris – Brussels train service to offer €10 standing tickets (Railway Gazette), Izy, le premier train à très bas prix de Thalys (7sur7), Thalys lance Izy, des trains à «bas coût» entre Paris et Bruxelles (Le Parisien).

5 thoughts on “Thalys IZY: market segmentation is not the same as competition

  1. Competition is only another kind of market segmentation, and creates other problems. There has been a discussion at a Swedish railway forum ( about an incident with a broken connection. The passenger had bought a through ticket from somewhere to Stockholm, with a change in Nässjö. The JLT train to Nässjö was delayed, breaking the connection to the Transdev train from Nässjö to Stockholm. SJ runs trains from Nässjö to Stockholm about once an hour, while Transdev runs two trains per day. When the connection breaks, you would expect JLT to arrange your journey so that you can continue with the next SJ train, up to an hour later, but JLT informed the passenger that the passenger had to wait for seven hours for the next Transdev train. Competition increases delays if you can’t change to another carrier when your connections break.

  2. What the Paris-Brussels link really needs is a traditional turn-up-and-go semi-fast/stopping train service. At the moment, if you want to travel between Paris and Brussels on classic lines, you have to travel via Lille and it takes about 4½–5 hours and 3 or 4 changes of train. Yet there is a conspicuous gap in the local service on the shortest line between Paris and Brussels where the line crosses the border: no trains between Jeumont and Erquellines. Just restoring the local service across the border would create a real alternative to Thalys, even if it involves changing trains at the border.

    I do not understand the obsession among some rail operators with playing at airlines. Thalys, with its compulsory bookahead regime and lack of proper through ticketing, is bad enough. But the whole concept behind Izy (as well as Ouigo) is simply wrong, as they seem to be contriving to make their cheaper offering worse value: I do not see any operational justification for check-in or baggage restrictions. Yet just restoring a traditional passenger train service on the classic track would provide a natural, sensible cheap alternative, complementing Thalys. Likewise, instead of messing about with Ryanrail between French cities, SNCF should be increasing long-distance provision on its classic track, again as a straightforward walk-up service. It’s still possible to travel direct from Paris to (say) Lyon on lignes classiques (albeit slowly and infrequently), so why does it have so little promotion?

  3. Looks like a bit of my comment has been somehow “eaten” when I put “greather than” and “less than” symbols, “The only limitation is for 40 km (4).” should read:

    For services with under 100 km, coach companies need to file an application: if the “département” or “région” (because they’re in charge of the public transport network in the area) don’t oppose within two months, the authorization is automatically granted. The only limitation is for Île-de-France (Paris région), where no service can be with under 40 km between stops (4).

  4. To illustrate how France is trying so hard to protect SNCF: so far, the only “competition” in train services in France is provided by Thello (owned by Trenitalia, which is angry with SNCF since the end of Artesia joint-venture and the launch of NTV .Italo services, partially owned by SNCF, and Transdev, the main private competitor of SNCF wherever it can compete with SNCF): a night-train between Paris and Venice (previously operated by Artesia), and a day-train between Marseille, Nice and Milano. To operate this Marseille-Milano service, Thello had to prove ARAF (the French regulator for rail services) that it was an international service (1), and that it would not put in jeopardy TER/IC services between Marseille and Nice (2). These agreements were granted after 3 and 6 months of investigation, and are only valid until the end of 2016. This shows you how hard it is to compete (or any of its subsidiaries) in France.
    Bonus: Voyages-SNCF, a joint-venture between SNCF and Expedia, that sells the majority of train tickets to the public in France (thanks to SNCF perpetual advertisement for VSC, leading people to believe that VSC = SNCF), doesn’t sell/advertise/mention Thello services (3) (except, surprisingly, on the UK version of their website).

    Meanwhile, since last summer, any coach operator can freely operate a coach line in France, as long as there’s more than 100 km between stops, without any other regulation. The only limitation is for 40 km (4). Surprising, right? Anyone can operate a coach service in France, but if you dare to try to operate a train service in France, you can be sure you’ll face a bunch of regulations and limitations that will prevent you from doing so unless you’re really motivated.
    Of course, SNCF was one of the first to start coach services, with iDBus (later renamed Ouibus). Facing some fears against transformation of some train lines into coach lines, SNCF tried to reassure everyone, Guillaume Pépy (head of SNCF) saying for example that “coach services will be used to complement train services” SNCF won’t operate coach between Paris and Rennes” (5). You guessed it: 5 months later, Ouibus was starting its Paris-Rennes service… (6)
    Bonus: Voyages-SNCF sells tickets for Ouibus, but for no other coach operator.

    Multiplication of brands is probably a way to make people believe that there’s already competition in France, when definitely there’s not…

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