Talk Find a second life for old regional railway tracks in France allying transport perspective for the future and protection of the environment

The concentration of jobs and services in urban centres associated with the search of a better quality of life and of housing outside cities generates a lot of transport needs that are not satisfied with an adequate public transport offer outside of the major French metropolitan areas.

Car modal split is too high considering that regional railway lines represent nowadays more than the half of the existing French rail network. The huge majority of these tracks goes through rural and suburban areas reaching then vicinity or local towns centres but is unfortunately underused: traffic is very low, if not inexistent, even when there is a local demand.

In France, decades of non-investment in maintenance and renewal of the infrastructures have degraded the performances, threatening the existence of those lines, and consequently increasing the use of private car due to the lack of efficient public transport facilities. Impacts on the environment are well known too: traffic jams when approaching cities during peak hours and more CO2 emissions.

The concentration of the track property and the right of exploitation in the hands of the SNCF doesn’t let enough space for local or private initiative to develop efficient solutions in a small scale and to replace the financial disengagement of the state in local rail infrastructure. Closing lines are in the best case replaced by busses and when a track is dismantled, train services never come again.

A regeneration of the track might seem to be too expensive and complex today, but it is interesting to think in a mid-term perspective, considering the implementation of efficient energy-cell powered rolling stock for the years 2030-2050 and a possible regional rail market opening after 2026, which could make these old tracks more competitive and attractive than now.

The main priority in absence of traffic is to master the development of the vegetation to assure an optimal drainage and protect the infrastructure, especially bridges and canalizations. This action has a positive impact on the environment too by preventing the emergence of invading vegetal species and reducing the risk of fire in summer. Implementing innovative alternative use of the tracks, for example with touristic purposes like rail-cycle or horse-drawn streetcars, or innovative maintenance methods like weeding by goats and cows, will allow restoring easily and with lower costs the public transportation function of a line in the future.

Such positive economic conditions that allowed the emergence of this network in the nineteenth century will probably never reproduce again and the new edification of a similar network couldn’t be financed nowadays. Moreover, those infrastructures are even well integrated in the landscape and less aggressive than new roads in terms of rainwater management for example. Enough reasons to preserve this network of lines as a patrimony for next generations, even if is impossible to develop again a public transport offer by train in short time.

rail maintenance, vegetation, rainwater management