By Peter Lakin, President, INSEAD Alumni Auto+Mobility France
With an eye on the Olympic Games in 2024, France has launched a massive infrastructure investment, known as the Grand Paris Express. This ambitious project aims to double the size of the existing metro system by adding 200km of new track and 68 new stations. However unlike the existing metro, which generally runs radially out from the centre of Paris, the new lines will mostly run in a loop around the city. The aim is to connect the areas around the city in order to reduce inequality and to boost economic activity in the greater Paris region, known as the Ile de France.
It will be the largest underground metro network in the world that uses automatic, driverless trains and something of which France should be justifiably proud. So why is the French media coverage so negative? Most articles in the press are critical of three aspects of the project; its governance, its budget and its timescale.
Governance is complex because there are currently five levels of administration involved, from the city of Paris and the adjacent departments to the Ile de France region. This makes for a very large supervisory board, which has been criticised for poor supervision of the executive directors. In 2018, the national audit office expressed concerns that multi-million euro contracts were being awarded without the correct procedures being followed and in January 2019 a judicial inquest
was started by the Tribunal of Paris.
The budget for the project has increased from an initial estimate of 19 billion euros in 2010 via a government target of 25 billion euros in 2013, to the current forecast of over 38 billion euros. The money is mainly coming from the French government but residents in Ile de France have all seen an extra tax to support the project in their latest housing tax forms. This huge investment does not include the annual operating costs, which are estimated to be an incremental 1 billion euros above today’s costs for the transport authority.
Nor does it include the cost of the privately financed CDG Express, which is a dedicated rail service from Charles de Gaulle airport directly to the Gare de l’Est. This service will charge its users 24 euros each way for a non-stop service versus 10,30 euros for the existing RER B which stops at several stations. It has been described in the press as the “train for the rich”, with some politicians claiming that the money would be better spent on improving existing lines for the benefit of all.
The timescale has been modified since the initial plans due to the Olympic Games in 2024. This has contributed to the cost increases and probably also to the decision by the executive directors to award contracts faster than normal. Despite these catch-up actions, the national audit office still expresses grave doubts regarding the likelihood of meeting the target dates.
While few people argue against the idea of connecting the outer areas of Paris and the goals of reducing inequality and increasing the attraction of the region, the concerns regarding the project are growing. There is increasing pressure to look at faster and cheaper transport solutions, which take advantage of new, more flexible mobility technologies. Three ideas which have gained credibility recently are autonomous vehicles, trackless trams and aerial shuttles.
Individual autonomous vehicles (AV), sometimes also called robo-taxis, are seen as the holy grail for many in the transport sector, as they should reduce traffic accidents, increase vehicle utilisation to reduce the number of vehicles on the road and improve accessibility to transport for older and infirm people. By using car sized vehicles, they can match supply with demand more flexibly than a 30 seat bus, which often has fewer than 5 passengers outside rush hours.
Huge investments are being ploughed into AV technology by car manufacturers and leaders from the tech industry and trials are underway in several cities around the world. In France, the EZ-GO Concept is being promoted by Renault as a shared car without driver or steering wheel, that could be in limited service from 2022. Some French politicians argue that the use of AVs on dedicated routes would incur a significantly lower investment and operating cost than a fixed rail system like the CDG Express and they are requesting the government to look at this as an option.
Trackless trams are currently being introduced by CRRC in China. These ART (Autonomous Rail Transit) electric trams use dedicated lanes on the road and have priority at crossing points. They are recharged at each stop from super capacitors on the roof, so that the battery size can be reduced and they use LIDAR and GPS to glide into stations with millimetre accuracy. There are no rails nor overhead cables to install which makes them a lower cost alternative to light rail (6M euros/km versus 24M euros/km) for corridors of 8km to 20km, with stops every 800m to 1200m.
Aerial shuttles use dedicated tracks 7 metres above ground. Two French companies Supraways and Belway are promoting this concept and a trial route has been planned in Saint Quentin en Yvelines, near Paris. In the Supraways system, the shuttles are suspended from the track, while in the Belway system they use the track as a road surface. Belway says that it can be also used by private autonomous vehicles, which can then run on existing roads after leaving the dedicated track, so solving the “last km” problem to get people home. The Supraways pods are specific designs. Both systems allow the vehicles to be taken off line at regular intervals so that passengers can get on or off without stopping the flow of traffic on the main track. This enables speeds of 70km/hour to be maintained in urban areas and up to 120km/hour between towns. Supraways estimates its investment cost between 8M and 10M euros/km.
In conclusion, the current trials and tribulations of the Grand Paris Express project could oblige it to look for lower cost alternatives for parts of the network. Paris has the opportunity to use this project to show the world how to implement new transport technologies successfully and to become a leader in the sector.