Float Your Boat

Mon Beau Bateau has ambitious plans to restore river traffic to France. Selwyn Parker goes with the flow in Paris’ latest attempt to attract passengers back to the Seine.

Is this third-time lucky for river transport along the Seine? A cooperative company called RiverCat France will launch in 2024, just in time for the Paris Olympics, a fleet of vessels that will ply one of the world’s most-loved waterways in direct competition to combustion-engined commuting.

The venture, called Mon Beau Bateau after a popular children’s song, comes exactly 90 years after centuries-old passenger traffic ended on the Seine and 15 years after the failure of a brave attempt to revive it.

Now though, RiverCat France believes Paris is ready for a practical and ecologically virtuous project – an electrically powered “bus-boat” (navette fluviale) that will ply the Seine at convenient frequencies ranging from 15-30 minutes and that will in time cover most of the suburbs including those located on the Upper Seine, so far largely neglected by river transport. The first three services will run from early 2024.

RiverCat France’s Dany Carvalho on the virtues of city boats (en français, bien sûr !)

For RiverCat France, it’s not all about commuting. Chief Executive Dany Carvalho tells International Transport Forum (ITF) that the venture also aims to promote river tourism that, he says, is ripe for development along most of France’s rivers.

Checkered history

The big issue is whether this project will succeed where others have failed. Admittedly in an entirely different era, the advent of rail killed off river transport along the Seine in the 1930s. And the Voguéo project 15 years ago was before its time. Although an operational success, it was bedevilled by a complex financial structure and interfering local authorities wanting extra services. Voguéo closed in 2011 after posting three years of mounting losses despite dropping ticket prices to as low as one euro. Also, being fully manned and powered by combustion engines, the French-built catamarans were expensive to run. 

However as RiverCat France says, Voguéo was at least “forward thinking”.

RiverCat France’s fleet could hardly be more different. With an eye to costs and competitiveness with other forms of transport, its bus-boats are standardised developments of existing designs.

The 100-passenger catamaran will be delivered by Netherlands-based Damen while the 50-passenger boat will come from Hyke, a Norwegian specialist in city ferries that has just unveiled a solar and battery-powered boat that docks itself and starts recharging.

A Damen Waterbus on the move in Rotterdam

Although these boats will be manned at first with a skipper and single crew, in time only the skipper will remain, albeit primarily as a safety officer rather than a captain because automation will make the role pretty much redundant.

Funding the flotilla

The financial risk for the venture is being taken by RiverCat France and its shareholders. The company tells ITF that the cost for the first phase of the project is estimated at 1-2 million euros, but that’s without the boats. (Hyke estimates about 300 000 euros for an annual rental of its ferries.) The company is a co-operative in which the public can buy a stake from as little as 100 euros and earn a tax write-off. Also, “several companies have expressed financial interest”, says M. Carvalho. Apart from anything else, it can hardly hurt that thousands of small shareholders will feel encouraged to jump aboard the bus-boats and grow their investment.

Comfort … et chic

RiverCat France doesn’t sell speed, preferring to emphasise comfort, convenience and ecological responsibility. Passengers are guaranteed a seat, warmth, wifi, café bar, up to 40 spaces for a bicycle, and views of one of the world’s great cities. Passengers are dropped off within a maximum of five minutes’ walk from other forms of transport.

And ticket prices look unbeatable. At a maximum of three to eight euros depending on the destination, the river journey compares more than favourably with an hour-long drive through Paris, not counting parking, insurance, maintenance and garaging. Although the details are still under wraps, tickets could fall to as low as a couple of euros under various season-ticket deals.

Romantic notions: Hyke’s 50-passenger Paris proposal

Reading between the lines, RiverCat France is targeting cars rather than rail by building on the cycling revolution. The capacity for 40 bicycle spaces on the boats is intended to encourage door-to-door travel by cyclists. An ecological bonus is the boat’s ability to cram in up to three cargo bikes: a rapidly developing form of urban delivery. 

Encore !

For RiverCat France’s Chief Executive this is just the start of the voyage. He sees the Paris service as the first step in a grand plan to link the country’s cities and their suburbs with a fleet of bus-boats. “The ambition is to establish a regular transport service for passengers and cyclists everywhere in France with innovative, high-performing and comfortable boats that are respectful of the environment [and] that complement existing transport services,” M.Carvalho says.

And the interest appears to be there. “Several cities have expressed interest in the project already,” he says. “Our aim is to develop this innovative waterborne commuter mode in Nantes, Lyon, Rouen, and Avignon by 2026 and 2028.”

That’s a short timetable in which the Paris Olympics will clearly be a vital step.

Selwyn Parker is an independent journalist and author of Chasing the Chimney Sweep about the first Tour de France of 1903.

The International Transport Forum’s work towards sustainable maritime transport includes studies on electrification, alternative fuels, carbon pricing and efficiency gains to bridge the gap between increasing demand and rising emissions. Learn more

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