The historic train operator, SNCF, has a legal monopoly on passenger rail transport in France.
However, the distribution of train tickets falls outside the legal monopoly. Although such distribution is mainly provided by SNCF, either directly (at the train station for example) or indirectly (through subsidiaries such as Voyage SNCF Développement (VSC) which operates the voyages-sncf.com platform), other SNCF-approved travel agencies may also distribute train tickets. To do so, they access SNCF's online reservation system (the Résarail database). Connection to this central system is made via the technical interfaces known as Ravel and WDI, and SNCF bills for their use. In exchange, travel agencies can charge SNCF a commission on the train ticket sales that they make on SNCF's account (mandate). Prices of domestic tickets are regulated, so there is no price competition for the sale of tickets to customers through travel agencies.
In 2013, SNCF’s website, sncf.com, sold 75 million train tickets and reached 4 billion euros in turnover.
On May 11, 2010 three online travel agencies, Lastminute, Karavel and AS Voyages, complained to the French Competition Authority (the FCA) that they were treated differently by SNCF as compared to its online travel agency subsidiary Voyages-sncf.com. They argued that they experienced less advantageous sales conditions on train tickets without any objective justification. (Lastminute and Karavel have since withdrawn their complaints.)
Several questionable practices were identified by the FCA. For example, the sncf.com site did not itself display train schedules but, rather, directed visitors to the voyages-sncf.com website, a site which was the only SNCF site to take reservations, potentially allowing its subsidiary to capture traffic by taking advantage of the SNCF brand. Also, as no separation existed between voyagessncf. com and the SNCF’s subsidiary responsible for gathering requests to access SNCF's ticketing reservation system (VSC-T), voyages-sncf.com could potentially access competing travel agencies’ commercial strategy.
In the light of these practices, which could conceivably constitute an abuse of a dominant position, the SNCF proposed commitments, through the procedure known as “negotiated”, to prevent potential sanctions by the FCA. The SNCF proposed 12 commitments that would allow outside travel agents to compete with its distribution site on equal terms. On April 28, 2014, market participants were consulted on these commitments. Certain operators submitted observations to the FCA, welcoming the commitments, but noting, however, that delays in implementing the commitments were too long.
On October 2, 2014, the FCA accepted the commitments from railway operator SNCF to prevent voyages-sncf.com from enjoying preferential treatment over competing travel agencies. SNCF notably committed to apply the same commission conditions to all travel agencies, including voyages-sncf.com. The decrease in prices to access certain interfaces will make it easier for agencies to offer, like voyages-sncf.com, the entire SNCF transport offer (“iDTGV” and “Ouigo” included). It will also allow outside agencies to integrate other transport providers’ offers, in particular for international travel.
SNCF also committed to enter into all contracts with travel agencies including those with voyagessncf. com in its own name, and not by its subsidiary VSC-T.
Concerning access to information, SNCF agreed to guarantee the confidentiality of requests from competing travel agencies in order not to give voyages-sncf.com any confidential information about its competitors.
Finally, SNCF will display the train schedules on its own website sncf.com and will redirect visitors to Voyages-sncf.com only for reservations.
Depending on the nature of the commitment, SNCF has a few months or up to a year to implement its proposals. The FCA will remain in charge of monitoring the implementation. The commitments will continue indefinitely, but will be reviewed in 5 years.
According to the FCA, travel agencies and voyages-sncf.com will now be treated equally, particularly in terms of billing, payment and access to information. These commitments will allow agencies to differentiate themselves by offering travelers diversified and more substantial offers (innovative reservation websites, tickets combing all types of transport).
These commitments have convinced the FCA to close the proceedings initiated following the complaint from the travel agency AS Voyages.
This decision is not the first one addressing competition issues involving SNCF. Indeed, in 2009, the Competition Council (the FCA’s predecessor) had imposed a 5 million euros fine on SNCF for favoring its online agency at the expense of its competitors, notably by refusing the competitors access to all promotions and the ability to offer to their customers the possibility of printing out their rail tickets.