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The Italian state-owned train operator is aiming to launch high-speed rail services between some of Europe’s biggest cities as it takes advantage of the liberalisation of the region’s network.
Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane (FS) wants a high-speed rail service that connects Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris and eventually Berlin to exploit EU rules forcing countries to allow competition on their high-speed networks.
Detailed plans are already under way to link Paris and Barcelona.
Carlo Palasciano Villamagna, chief international officer of FS, told the Financial Times the company was interested in offering cross-border services after new liberalisation measures came into force in June 2019.
The rules have paved the way for competition between private companies and state operators from neighbouring countries as rail groups are allowed to run trains on infrastructure across the region.
The move aims to expand the market, making trains a more competitive option to short-haul flying, in one of the most significant changes to the European rail industry in decades.
It comes as Eurostar, which connects the UK with the continent, also faces potential competition for the first time after the owner of National Express held talks with Spanish industrialists over launching a new cross-Channel service.
Trenitalia, the train operating arm of FS, has already expanded into some high-speed rail services in France and Spain, including linking Milan and Paris.
But Villamagna said the company was interested in offering new services in other parts of Europe, adding that Brussels to Amsterdam could be an attractive route.
“It’s currently under offer by only one company because they merged,” Villamagna said of the route.
Only Eurostar Group provides services on the route after its merger with Thalys to form a single company, controlled by SNCF, France’s state-owned train operator.
“It’s a very popular line,” Villamagna said of the Brussels to Amsterdam route. “We’re currently understanding how we could be possible partners or possible actors for that part of Europe.”
The study of the Brussels to Amsterdam market was running in parallel with plans to launch a Paris to Barcelona route, Villamagna said.
“Why not also continue from Paris to the east side — so Brussels to Amsterdam?” Villamagna asked. He added that the company could eventually operate a service to Berlin.
Alberto Mazzola, executive director of the Community of European Railways, a lobby group of mainly state-owned railways, said he expected greater competition on many routes.
There have been complaints that the rail shake-up has been slow, which Mazzola blamed on the coronavirus outbreak less than a year after liberalisation came into force.
“If we hadn’t had Covid, we would have seen even more competition today,” Mazzola said.
He suggested, however, that the lack of suitable infrastructure for high-speed rail services in Europe was also a big problem.
Networks were mostly focused on connecting places within one country, he added, with few high-speed rail lines between neighbouring states.
“The point that we have today is that we’re missing infrastructure. We have a lot of national networks. No one is connecting internationally.”
A report this year by consultants EY found that creating a comprehensive high-speed network to connect Europe’s biggest regions and cities would cost €550bn.
Villamagna said Trenitalia was planning to offer a higher standard of service than competitors in a market where operators are under pressure to distinguish themselves in a crowded arena.
Between Barcelona and Madrid, Trenitalia’s Iryo competes not only with AVE, the original service run by Renfe, Spain’s state-owned incumbent, but also with Ouigo, a budget brand of SNCF, and Avlo, Renfe’s budget brand.
Villamagna insisted that Trenitalia’s plans for a higher standard of service would make it complementary with rivals.
This, in turn, would help persuade passengers to switch from air to rail, rather than taking passengers from other rail companies.
The last line of this article has been corrected to say that developments would encourage passengers to switch from air to rail, rather than the other way round.