The electric vehicle, the size of a large minivan, brakes, turns right, exits the paved departmental road and continues its journey along… the railway. The video may well be made up of computer generated images, but it has a small effect. Flexy – this is the name of this rail-road prototype – is one of SNCF’s novelties in the field of ultralight trains, developed in collaboration with the start-up Milla (designer of this battery-powered shuttle) and Michelin (creator of the hybrid wheel that can go from asphalt to iron).
Flexy, which aims to offer mixed rail-road transport in towns and remote areas, is one of three experiments by the public rail group aimed at revitalizing the territory’s so-called “fine service” small lines. The projects are in crescendo in terms of capacity. After Flexy and its nine seats, the second innovation, Draisy, is a rail shuttle with 30 seats (80 maximum). The concept, developed with the Alsatian industrialist Lohr, is a small battery-powered electric train, which is recharged at the station, intended for low-traffic lines and trips of up to 100 kilometres.
The latest project, the Innovative Light Rail (TLI), capable of carrying 100 seated passengers, is more like an ordinary train. The machine, designed with the manufacturers Alstom and CAF, also travels on the railways of the national network, unlike the other two, which use degraded lines. But the weight reduction of the TLI (10 tons per axle compared to 17 tons for a TER) reduces maintenance costs and wear on the tracks.
“Pressure of the Regions”
SNCF estimates that the TLI could be put into commercial operation in 2028-2029. Flexy and Draisy would see the light of day even faster: in 2026, the public group suggests. Right now, in Carquefou (Loire-Atlantique), near Nantes, SNCF is carrying out, in collaboration with Stellantis, tests of autonomous shuttles on an old paved railway track that has been converted into a test track.
“We put SNCF’s innovation capabilities at the service of increasing the train’s modal share”, explains Carole Desnost, the company’s director of research and innovation. Jean-Pierre Farandou, CEO of SNCF, has given his group the goal of doubling the share of train travel in France by 2030. In sparsely populated areas, where there are hardly any solutions other than the car and where the rail network is reducing , these innovative materials would make it possible to offer a more suitable and less expensive offer for the community than conventional trains, while offering connection options to the main stations.
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