Nord France Invest (NFI), the economic development agency for Northern France has done its sums. And from the Lille Region point of view they are very encouraging.

They’ve worked out that they have direct access to Europe’s largest concentration of consumers, providing a marketplace population of 78 million with a purchasing power of €1.5 billion. The region has a GDP of €96 billion, and 324 inhabitants per square kilometre, of which 34% are under 25 years old.

NFI also promotes that particularly French concept of “clusters”. A cluster, in France, refers to a group of similar industries and partners that can work together to promote competitiveness. So these can include manufacturers and their supply chain, but also academic institutions along with research and development resources.

Top rail cluster

The Lille region is France’s number one rail cluster with 40% of the French rail construction market and 100 rail related companies. These include four of the world’s top trainset manufacturers. In fact, it claims to be Europe’s top rail cluster. All of this is emphasised by the excellent rail links with fast, frequent services serving Brussels (35mins), Paris (1hour) and London (1hour 20mins) – just three of the 65 cities in Europe served on a daily basis by high speed trains from Lille.

NFI is keen to emphasise the links between engineering and academia. Seven percent of all French students attend higher education in the Lille region, that’s 16,000 of them and this produces 10% of all French engineers through seven universities and 23 engineering schools.

One of France’s top universities – or Grandes Ecoles – is the Institut Catholique d’Arts et Metiers (ICAM) located in Lille. Professor Jean-Pierre Rigaut explains that ICAM provides engineering degrees up to, and including, masters level and offers engineering training through laboratory based R&D internships. Prof.

Rigaut is developing a railway engineering masters in close collaboration with nearby Alstom and Bombardier.

Specialist training

Further specialist railway training is located at the Eurotunnel site at Coquelles. The Eurotunnel Group recently unveiled its Centre International de Formation Ferroviare de Cote d’Opale (CIFFCO) into which €3 million has been invested. The Coquelles site is huge. Having been reclaimed from marsh and sparsely populated land, space doesn’t seem to be a problem – the Eurotunnel maintenance facility nearby has the longest railway maintenance shed in the world.

CIFFCO has facilities to carry out training on all aspects of railway infrastructure in a modern building of 1,100m2. There are eight training rooms, a 135-seat auditorium and a room with eight mobile Eurotunnel train simulators. France’s Railway Security Organisation has just entrusted CIFFCO with the training of its evaluators who examine France’s high-speed rail drivers. Alstom will also use CIFFCO to train its test-centre drivers.

The Technopole

Near Valenciennes, which is to the south east of Lille, is the site of the massive Technopole project. The Technopole, Valenciennes Metropole’s new international centre for sustainable transport, has been in the making for a decade. Development of the park is now taking place on a 30 hectare site linked directly to the local university. In a region that specialises in sustainable transport research and innovation, Valenciennes was an ideal choice.

With railway industry giants like Bombardier and Alstom in the area, along with the European Railway Agency as well as Toyota, PSA and Mercedes Benz from the automotive sector, the i-Trans competitiveness cluster and the university of Valenciennes and Hainaut Cambresis have benefited from the government’s “innovative Campus” label for sustainable transport. The Technopole offers easy access to highways and a tram line links it to Greater Valenciennes and the national rail network.

It’s in its early construction stages at the present. Initial transportation links have been installed and so there is currently an isolated tram terminal sitting in the middle of a field, but by 2015 this impressive, multimillion Euro project will be in full operation. Associated with the venture is a test track due to be constructed from 2017. This will be a 5km durability test loop with vehicles running at up to 120km/hr. It will be located in a more rural location so as to minimise impact on inhabited areas.

So, with their sums done and with all the population and geographic advantages of the region, Nord France Invest is well placed to help find land and premises as well as source and apply for French government subsidies for national and international railway investors alike.