The Rush to Luxembourg: eastern France and the challenges of cross-border mobility
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg enjoys the highest GDP per capital in the European Union. Its dynamic economy is attracting residents from the neighbouring Grand Est region in eastern France, where the industrial decline has hit hard. In fact, no less than 87,000 French nationals, or 7% of the region’s working population, cross the border daily to work in Luxembourg.
While salaries are higher in Luxembourg than they are in France, so is the cost of living. For this reason, aside from job opportunities, the main advantage of crossing the border every day is increased buying power. However, the constant to-and-fro significantly affects the quality of life.
The great majority of the daily cross-border movement is undertaken by car. The inhabitants of Lorraine who work in Luxembourg travel an average of 44 kilometres each way of their daily commute along the roads connecting Nancy, Metz and Thionville. This is much more than the average commute of 15 kilometres in the rest of France. Along the saturated highways, commuters are forced to wait a long time in traffic jams. “Every other day is hell,” says Jonathan, who lives in Thionville, 35 kilometres from Luxembourg City where he works. “It usually takes me 50 minutes to get to work, [but] because of the rain and accidents, I regularly spend more than an hour and fifteen minutes in traffic jams.” Jonathan now usually waits to leave work until after 7 p.m. in order to avoid the rush hour backup, as the number of daily commuters is growing constantly. The percentage of daily commuters using their cars to cross the border is decreasing, but the roads are more and more clogged.
Trains at full capacity
A study carried out by CEPS/Instead in 2011 revealed that 11.5% of commuters crossing the border from Lorraine chose the train, an increase of two percentage points in three years. But the distance between work and home has contributed to “concentrating journeys between 6 and 8 a.m., which means that the train and bus services are at their maximum capacity,” says Florian Weyer, Director of Transport and Mobility for the Grand Est region. And yet, the regional government has implemented corrective measures; in 2016, the introduction of a tighter timetable made it possible to increase the number of trains on the Metz-Luxembourg line from 12 to 16 every morning between 5:30 and 8:30 a.m. This represents 10,000 seats, but it still isn’t enough. “We’ve observed that with more seats available on the trains, people automatically switch from their cars,” said Weyer. “As a result, once again, we’re saturated.” Sébastien, who changed to the train for his commute between Metz and Luxembourg, shares this point of view. “It’s getting really hard, with delays nearly every day. I spend two hours a day commuting, and half the time I’m standing on the steps,” he says.
By 2030, says Evelyne Isinger, an elected official in charge of transport for the Grand Est region, “the region wants to increase the number of seats from 10,000 to 20,000.” However, investments in safety must take priority for the moment. The trains in France are equipped with different driver assistance systems from those in Luxembourg. This incompatibility made it impossible to correct the human errors that resulted in a collision between a freight train and a regional passenger train in Luxembourg in early 2017. By 2020, all trains crossing the border must be equipped with the same European security system. As part of this, the Grand Est region will invest €16 million in fitting out 25 trains.
The road-based mass transit option
In order to better serve the area, the regional government is betting on new and improved versions of the bus. These are actually deluxe tour buses with Wi-Fi, power sockets and air conditioning, and offer an experience close to that of the train. The route from Metz to Esch-sur-Alzette, the second largest city in Luxembourg, opened in 2016 and others are to follow, to supplement the regional train service. There is real opportunity here, because the 2011 study mentioned earlier also revealed that only 5.5% of the border-crossing commuters from the Grand Est region were using the bus to get to neighbouring Luxembourg.
Organised carpooling is another solution for lightening road traffic at rush hour. “Every morning, 250,000 empty car seats enter the capital,” says Luxembourg’s Minister of Transport François Bausch at the launch of CoPilote, the Grand Duchy’s new carpooling platform. Thanks to this initiative, it is hoped that in Luxembourg one out of two cars will carry at least two people by 2025, thereby reducing the number of cars on the road.
Finally, the employers themselves could play a key role in easing congestion in the transport system. The idea would be to give border-crossing workers more flexible hours and let them e-work more often, maximising the existing infrastructure capacity and thereby avoiding having to make huge investments to increase supply at rush hour.
La conjoncture économique et sociale dans la région Grand Est et ses territoires, CESER Alsace Champagne-Ardenne Lorraine
La mobilité des frontaliers du Luxembourg, CEPS/Instead