Julian Moxon/PARIS

French railway company SNCF is considering a move that could see it become the first "non-airline" member of the Star Alliance - although it has not yet dismissed alternative options which could see it do a "train/plane" deal with a single airline, or open its route network to a range of carriers.

Star member Lufthansa has revealed that it is pursuing a similar deal in Germany, where it has agreed with rail operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) to launch a pilot project next year allowing airline passengers to transfer to the Frankfurt-Stuttgart rail route. If successful, Lufthansa could vacate some short-haul routes in favour of the rail alternative.

SNCF plans to decide on its strategy by the end of this year, but all options would feature through-ticketing for airline passengers from major French airports to the rest of the country, using the high-speed TGV network.

The rail operator already has a limited deal with United Airlines, for connections from Lyon. It is studying the possibility of extending it to the entire Star group. Sources say such a move is opposed by Air France, however, which also has a deal with SNCF and which would like to tie the rail company into its own emerging global alliance.

Industry sources say an airline deal would allow SNCF to make better use of its Fr800 million ($124 million) TGV terminal at Charles de Gaulle Airport, which could provide time-competitive links to destinations within 2-3h travel, such as Brussels. SNCF customer services chief Guillaume Pépy believes sales to airline customers could double "to Fr2 billion" in five years.

Lufthansa and DB will launch next year's pilot project - including features such as through baggage transfer - to coincide with the Expo 2000 event in Hanover. They already have an agreement on joint ticketing from 2001. Lufthansa says it has "a medium term project" which could see it quit routes "under about 400km [250 miles]".

"Train/plane" integration looks set to become a major feature of short-haul strategy in Europe in the next few years. KLM, Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and Dutch rail company NS are studying one such project, while British Airways has invested in the Eurostar service and is pushing for rail development at its London hubs that might one day see it drop air routes to cities such as Paris.

From November, Brussels will have a four-times-daily direct high-speed rail link with Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. The trip time will be a little over 1h, with trains travelling at 200mph (322km/h).

Brussels' Zaventem Airport is not linked to the high-speed rail network as the Belgian Government has opposed bringing high-speed trains to the airport.

Source: Flight International