What future for small railway lines?

Science topics November 2018 TransportInnovationEnergy

By Philippe Poinsot, researcher in transport economics and regional economics - AME Department, LVMTLaboratory

The future of "small lines", or the capillary network, has been the subject of much debate following the Spinetta report on the future of rail transport in France (2018). The debates are often heated, involving a conflict between those who see these lines as unnecessary public expenditure and those who see them as a necessity to ensure spatial equality.

To inform public decisions, researchers can propose a more refined, updated, classification of the lines.

What do we mean by “small railway lines”?

Each line of the French rail network is classified according to a standard defined by the International Union of Railways (UIC). This identifies nine groups, ranging from UIC Group 1, the lines with the highest traffic, to UIC Group 9, the lines with the lowest traffic. Small lines are lines that are classified as between UIC 7 and 9. They represent about 40% of the network with a total length of more than 12,000 km and carry mainly freight, with a few passengers.Small railway line - Credit Epictura

At the European level, the French rail network has the most small lines. There are three reasons for this. The first is that, before the rise of the automobile and road transport, the goal of the rail network was to provide very dense coverage of the regions, which resulted in a very extensive network. The second is that railways are a French public service, and whatever the cost for public finances, some lines have not been closed, in contrast to the situation in our European neighbours. Finally, the third reason is that the policy of the operator - SNCF2  - has been to concentrate traffic on a small number of routes and hubs, thus limiting the use of the rest of the network.

Today, the condition of a significant part of the network is a cause for concern: the track is in poor condition, the signalling is ageing, etc. Several questions arise about the best choices to make. And the UIC group is a criterion taken into account in this context.

Towards a new classification of lines

Despite many criticisms, the fact that a line belongs to a particular UIC group has major implications, particularly in terms of financing. For example, the recent Performance contract between the State and SNCF Réseau indicates that the infrastructure manager must focus its investments on UIC groups 2-6, thus prohibiting any depreciable investment on small lines.

However, a studyii conducted in the framework of the New Economic Approach towards Mobility chair (LVMT/SNCF), has shown how inadequate this classification is for representing the current characteristics of the lines in the New Aquitaine3 region . For example, Figure 1 shows that a great deal of diversity exists within the UIC groups 7-9. In order to inform public decisions on short lines, the assessment of current characteristics can be improved. It should take account of the potential, particularly in terms of demand, and possible ways of reducing the overall cost of small lines. Several studies recently undertaken with Cerema, the Normandy and PACA Regions, and SNCF Réseau, aim to develop methods for a more accurate evaluation.


Figure 1 : The situation with regard to five UIC 7 to 9 lines in the New Aquitaine Region
What future for small railway lines? - Ifsttar - IUC - credit Ifsttar



Interpretation: each line of the rail network is represented by five main characteristics: infrastructure, service provision, ridership, financial performance and length of line. Each characteristic is assigned a score from 0 to 100: the higher the score, the better the characteristic of the line.






1 The LVMT is a multidisciplinary laboratory which is jointly managed by the École des Ponts ParisTech, IFSTTAR and UPEM. It deals with major social issues relating to the city, mobility and transport.

2 The Société nationale des chemins de fer français (SNCF) is the French public railway company, officially created by an agreement between the State and the pre-existing railway companies, in application of the Legislative Decree of 31 August 1937

3 This is hardly surprising given the initial objective of this classification, which was to facilitate the formulation of a network maintenance policy.



To find out more...

Deraëve, S., Mimeur, C., Poinsot, P., Zembri, P. (2018). Les petites lignes : de la nomenclature UIC à un classement par les enjeux et les potentiels, Transports urbains, n° 133, pp. 3-8.

Dislaire, C., Guerrinha C., Mimeur C., Poinsot, P., Zembri P., Deraeves, S. (2018). Qu’est-ce qu’une 'petite ligne' ferroviaire ? Une analyse à partir de la Région Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Paper at the first Francophone transport and mobility meeting (RFTM), Lyon, 6-8 juin 2018.

Meignien, B., Vernier, A. (2016). Quelles modalités d'organisation pour les petites lignes ferroviaires ; Case study in the Centre Val-de-Loire, Limousin and Brittany regions, CEREMA, 43 p.