Analysis, France

Fixing France’s railways – what would I do?

This morning I gave a presentation about solving the problems of Europe’s railways at an event organised by BEUC and hosted by UFC Que Choisir in Paris. Plenty of the debate centred on the problems of rail in France (and Spain) I documented during my #CrossBorderRail project.

“Have you ever written up what you’d do to improve railways in France?” one of the UFC Que Choisir people asked me. And the response was no, not in one place.

So this blog post is an effort to do so! A series of proposals, in roughly declining order of importance – to fix French railways.

1. Sort out the timetables

Timetables in France are pretty universally terrible. There are clumps of trains close to each other, and then nothing for hours. Often there are big gaps in the middle of the day, and the first trains are too late, and the last ones too early (the first Toulouse – Paris departs at 06:28 and arrives 10:52 – that’s far too late!) The hours trains do run they often run at different times during the hour – pretty hopeless if you then want to get onto a bus at your destination that runs to a fixed schedule. Aim to run what the Germans would call a Taktfahrplan – trains at the same time each hour, every hour, throughout the day. By all means run more trains (or longer trains!) at peak times, but never have a gap of more than 2 hours in the timetable.

Places that do this better: Switzerland (the masters), Austria (very good), Belgium, Netherlands, UK, Germany

 

2. Coordinate long distance and regional trains

Related to point 1. Often when a TGV long distance high speed train arrives at a major station (e.g. Dijon Ville, Perpignan) local TER trains are not coordinated to depart shortly afterwards. Indeed in many places the last TER train (e.g. Perpignan-Cerbère or Perpignan-Villefranche Vernet les Bains) departs before the arrival of the final TGV of the day. And yes, I know TERs are the responsibility of the régions, but RegionalExpress trains are the responsibility of the Länder in Germany – and Germany still manages to have the timetables coordinated.

This might mean ditching the “oh we have a direct TGV train to Paris” sops to the regions. No, Remiremont (popn 7700) does not need 2 TGVs a day to Paris. It would be better if it had an hourly TER to Nancy, coordinated with an hourly TGV from Nancy to Paris Est. This would then result in a TGV network with regional nodes for transfers to TERs (e.g. Marseille St Charles, Montpellier St Roch, Lyon Part-Dieu, Dijon Ville, Mulhouse, Strasbourg, Nancy, Metz, Lille Flandres, Marne-la-Vallée, Rennes, St Pierre des Corps (Tours), Bordeaux St Jean, Toulouse Matabiau – not an exhaustive list) and fewer direct services to tiny places. Done well this could also eliminate stops on some TGV routes (Agde does not need a TGV, but better coordinated TER timetables).

Places that do this better: Switzerland (the masters), Austria (excellent), Czechia, Germany.

 

3. Abolish compulsory seat reservations on TGVs and Intercités

A crucial aspect of a good railway system is it allows you, as an individual, to change your plans – and the train can take the strain. Work meeting delayed? Take the next train. Need to get home earlier because your family is ill? Hop on an earlier one. Flights all cancelled due to an Icelandic volcano? The train will get you home. Need to go to a funeral tomorrow at the other end of the country? It ought to be possible.

Only it won’t if the train is sold out.

Sure, standing all the way from Paris to Lyon might not be very pleasant, but it is better than not getting there at all.

Want to book ahead and make sure you get a seat? Sure, no problem – levy a small charge for a seat reservation.

Don’t get me wrong – there are limits here. Charging more for this flexibility is OK. Nudging passengers onto trains at off peak times is also fine. There are physical limits to how many standing passengers a train can take. But if you doubt me saying this is possible, try taking a TGV during a strike when only a few trains are running – it doesn’t lead to pandemonium!

Want a less radical version of this? Make sure there are non-reservation alternatives to TGVs (X2000s in Sweden and Frecciarossa in Italy are compulsory reservation too, but there are slower alternatives you can always take, and in Italy often high speed trains until very late in the evening), or make only peak hours TGVs compulsory reservation.

Places that do this better: Austria and Germany. And for the less radical version Italy and Sweden.

 

4. Abolish OUIGO TGVs

OUIGO TGVs are an abomination. The trains are owned and run by SNCF, but it is a separate brand – offering one class of basic accommodation, luggage limits, obligatory check in before boarding (let’s copy the worst of an airline!) and no right to take a regular TGV if a OUIGO is disrupted. This might have made sort of sense in the early days of the service when OUIGO served Marne-la-Vallée rather than Paris Gare de Lyon (think Paris Beauvais airport for Ryanair rather than CDG for Air France), but now OUIGO crops up everywhere – replacing regular TGVs.

Want an early morning train from Nice Ville to Paris Gare de Lyon? The 06:01 train is a OUIGO. The first regular TGV goes at 09:57. 12:02 is a TGV, 15:02 a OUIGO, 16:01 a TGV. You get the idea.

The stated aim of OUIGO – high speed train tickets at rock bottom prices – is fair enough, but why do these have to be separate trains? Why not have a contingent of super cheap tickets for basic seats on every Nice to Paris service, and a contingent of more deluxe first class at higher prices? Then everyone gets what they want, at the time they want it, instead of this absurd cheap one hour, premium service the next hour as now.

Please note I am less opposed to the so-called OUIGO Lignes Classiques – basically old Intercités trains painted pink. These run Paris – Nantes and Paris – Lyon on older, slower lines – they actually could offer an alternative to TGVs (see point 3. above), but yeah, they are… compulsory reservation. Ditch that and the idea there is OK – use older, slower trains for budget travel is not bad.

Places that do this better: pretty much everywhere except Renfe in Spain. Look ÖBB’s Railjet – some of the most deluxe seats in Business Class, and cheap tickets in 2nd Class – in the same train. That’s how to do it!

 

5. Not build any more beetroot stations, and better connect the existing ones

So called “beetroot stations” (gares des betteraves – from the nickname for TGV Haute Picardie that is literally in the middle of beet fields) are stations in the middle of nowhere on high speed lines, normally many kilometres from the cities they are supposed to serve. Many of these – such as Aix en Provence TGV, Lorraine TGV, Meuse TGV – do not even have any connection to the regular railway network, and are instead massive car parks next to the TGV station. Connections by public transport – normally by bus – to the nearby cities are often very poor.

These stations are planned based on the assumption that anyone using them will also have a car. Even Autoland Germany is not this wrong headed in its planning of railway infrastructure as this!

The solution is to make sure buses (and where they exist, TER trains on connecting lines) run regularly and reliably, connecting these stations as swiftly as possible to city centres. Medium term plan any new high speed lines without stations like this – by using loops into cities instead, and build railways without the assumption that everyone using them will have a car.

Places that do it better: Germany, generally. The loop into Coburg off the Erfurt-Bamberg line, or Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe show how it can work. Italy has tended to build expensive tunnels (Bologna, Firenze) to avoid the same problems.

 

6. Introduce a simple, national and general reduction card

Reduction cards for frequent rail travellers in France are fiendishly complex. For long distance journeys (except OUIGO – see point 4.) there is the Carte Avantage (€49 – intended for leisure travel) and Carte Liberté (€399 – intended for business travel). Avantage can give you solid reductions, but if you are travelling in the week you have to show you will stay over for a weekend (to make it a kind of “leisure” trip). But neither of these cards applies to TERs in all régions – for they all have their own reduction cards. In the région I know best – Bourgogne Franche Comté – their TER Carte 26+ card costs €29 a year, and then gives you solid reductions, especially weekends, but a Carte Avantage does not save you a cent in that région.

Building on point 2. above, this obviously needs some coordination. A systematic way to get reductions on any train – whether TGV, OUIGO or TER – would obviously make sense. And if individual régions want to go further with their own reductions, sure, go ahead.

Places that do it better: Germany with the BahnCard. Austria’s Klimaticket is a much more radical option – it’s brilliant, if costly for the state to run.

 

7. Build the LGV Interconnexion Sud, and improve provincial TGV services

Trying to make trips in France between different parts of the country and not having to pass through Paris is never very simple, and is especially difficult towards the south west. The LGV Atlantique (Paris-Rennes/Nantes/Bordeaux) is orphaned from the rest of the high speed network. The project to complete a high speed southern loop around Paris is in planning – the Interconnexion Sud. This strikes me as the most worthwhile of all the high speed lines in planning, and should be prioritised.

Even without the Interconnexion there is massive untapped potential for TGVs not serving Paris terminals – no trains connect the Mulhouse/Besançon/Dijon lines with the lines to Lille via CDG for example. And trains that do not serve Paris are often terribly timetabled at the moment – regional trains are faster than TGVs between Strasbourg and Mulhouse, and North East – South East TGVs hang around for ages in Dijon. It is as if these TGVs that do not serve Paris do not matter.

Places that do it better: Germany, Austria, Poland (albeit all lower speed, but good connections not going via the capital)

 

8. Get rid of ticket barriers at stations, and have platforms for departures set in timetables

When you go to a station in France – often with luggage if you are on a long distance trip – you initially do not know what platform of your train as this is only announced 15-20 min ahead of departure. So departure halls, especially in older stations like Lille Flandres, are often over crowded. And then the problem is compounded by ticket barriers to access the platforms – that cannot take the strain when 500 people all run for a TGV – and then the gates do not reliably scan QR codes. Which means staff have to be on hand, which they also are on board the trains – to check your ticket a second time. It is all time consuming, costly, and inconvenient.

Places that do it better: pretty much everywhere except Spain, Italy and Netherlands. If Austria and Germany do not need these barriers, and can announce platforms in timetables, why can France not do that?

 

9. Do something about dwell times at stations – especially for TGVs

This is particularly poor with double deck TGVs that only have a single door per carriage. High passenger numbers per door, narrow stairs, and poorly designed luggage racks mean it takes a very long time to board and especially to disembark a TGV. This means that you get to your destination speedily, but are then waiting for people to get out. And for TGVs with a lot of stops (those that do not serve Paris) this slows down the whole journey.

Places that do it better: high speed trains designed by Siemens (DB ICE) and Hitachi (Frecciarossa 1000) have much better passenger flow, albeit lower capacity. There might be further inspiration from double decker regional trains.

 

10. Other annoyances

The interior of TGVs is not as pleasant as German ICEs, Renfe AVE or Trenitalia Frecciarossa.

Accessibility of stations is often horrible (lifts seem particularly badly designed), although this is a problem across much of Europe.

Most TGVs still do not accept bikes.

The SNCF Connect app and website are still a mess to use.

When you book a ticket via Paris, your SNCF ticket does not work in the RER or Metro to cross Paris.

The windows of TER trains are often really grimy.

Cross border regional TER services at pretty much all of France’s borders – but especially to Spain and Italy – are very poor, despite infrastructure being OK.

There are loads of superfluous announcements in French trains – that often seem more designed to clear SNCF of legal blame for things than actually to help passengers.

The structure of station access charges means stations with spare capacity (e.g. Paris Austerlitz) remain under-used.

Maintenance of the traditional non high speed network is often poor – and this has led to increased trip times.

 

That’s pretty much all I can think of right now!

 

Oh, and that is not to say all is bad. A TGV at 300km/h on the LGV Méditerranée is a joyous trip, and there are many wonderful rail routes – including my regular Nuits-sous-Ravières – Dijon, and along the Mediterranean coast Montpellier-Cerbère. Prices for tickets – especially if you book ahead – are reasonable. Long distance trains are generally reliable. Some night trains are being reintroduced. Staff are usually helpful and friendly. Some of the stations – such as Lille Europe, Marseille St Charles, Paris Est, Chambéry – have been improved a lot. And it has the best jingle of any railway.

18 Comments

  1. Chris Zweihoff

    Agree with all the points, especially on the irregular, awkward timetables which often seem to suit staff more than passengers.

    If people can find it (it’s been on Public Senat and Arte in France, currently RTS in Switzerland) then Manuel Lobmaier’s “Au Bout Des Rails” documentary is worth watching as it touches on many of the subjects here.

    I’d also add freight. A lot of trucks transit France, say from Spain to Germany, Portugal to Italy etc and there ought to be more incentives to get this off the road and on the rails, Swiss style. This risks saturating the network but it could also generate a lot of extra revenue.

  2. Vincent

    > 8. Get rid of ticket barriers at stations, and have platforms for departures set in timetables

    They were introduced after the 2015 Amsterdam-Paris TGV train attack. Considering the threat is still here, the governement is unlikely to get rid of them any time soon.

    https://www.lemonde.fr/blog/transports/2015/08/25/la-securisation-des-gares-moins-de-trains-des-trajets-plus-longs-et-plus-chers/

    • Yes. But it’s still total bullshit.

      The danger is what you put in your luggage. That isn’t checked. In theory you can be traced as tickets are named, but faking that is easy. Oh and there are loads of stations with no barriers for TERs. So you get on a TER, get out at a TGV station and into a TGV without passing the barriers.

      It’s expensive theatre. And however well motivated it was, it is still theatre.

    • Mathieu

      No, you’re mixing two different things here:
      “Airport style” security checkpoints (X-Ray for luggages + metal dectectors for passengers) have been installed at Paris Nord in 2015, following the train attack you mentionned. They were only installed on the two Thalys platforms, and started being less used in 2018-2019 (up to half of passengers were not checked in 2019), before being completely removed in 2020. There is currently no ticket barrier when you board a Thalys at Paris Nord, but rather a manual ticket inspection by Thalys staff.
      Ticket barriers have been installed at major stations from 2017 onwards. That’s an initiative by SNCF (and SNCF only), and their role has always been said to be reducing fare evasions (which they can’t really do by design, so your ticket is usually checked a second time once on board…). Their use by rail companies is completely optional (SNCF Gares & Connexions charges the operator a fee for each passenger checked (0.447€ in 2019, lowered a bit since, and with a different price in each station, expected revenue of 8.8 M€ in 2023 from this charge alone), Trenitalia France has opted not to use them), and the government has nothing to do with them existing or not, so they could be completely removed starting tomorrow if SNCF decided so.

      • Thanks for the clarification – and the numbers! And interesting that Trenitalia is not bothered to use them!

  3. C Keates

    Totally. I live in Portugal and am saddened to realise that I cannot viably leave the country and travel to Spain, France and elsewhere without spending days doing it…?

  4. Rian van der Borgt

    A very good summary.
    One small addition for point 6: Places that do it better should include Switzerland, since the Halbtaxabo gives reductions on almost all public transport. And the Generalabo is basically an annual season ticket for all public transport.

  5. Antoine Augusti

    A small comment to say that 26+ card in the BFC region is only 20 €, the price is similar in other regions. It’s cheap and gives amazing discounts but it’s such a pain to own multiple discount cards if you travel almost exclusively by train, within the same country. Sigh.

  6. Pingback: Make Marne-La-Vallée a European High Speed Rail Hub – Métro vélo dodo

  7. Krist van Besien

    I disagree with your objection to reservation included tickets though. I think that for example the travel experience on the German ICE network would be vastly improved if tickets came with a reservation. Allowing a train train to run packed with standees makes train travel rather horrible and punishes those who had the foresight to reserve seats.
    You say that it is better to travel standing, then not travel at all. However even better is knowing in advance which trains still have free seats. (And if all seats on all trains are taken the railway is just not running enough trains, and that is the problem that needs addressed, not included reservation ticketing.)

    The issue in France is not that TGVs have compulsory reservations, but that the tariff has become progressively less flexible. I can still remember how with a standard price 2nd class ticket on the TGV you could exchange it for an earlier or later train in seconds at a ticket vending machine. I travel enough in France that I got myself the Carte Liberté so the pain is lessened for me, but for infrequent travellers this is an issue. It is also a big issue for people arriving eg. by air at CDG, and continuing by TGV. I can still remember just booking a train with a generous margin, and then after landing at CDG just scanning my ticket at the “borne échange minute” and be on the next train with available seats without much fuss.

    So I would not abolish mandatory reservation on the TGV, but reintroduce full flexibility for normal tickets, and make it easy to change your reservation. Trenitalia does this a lot better.

    • I still find the “I need to change my plans and change my ticket before I can get on” to be an unnecessary extra burden. And DB also tells you the likely load on ICEs to allow you to choose another train – which is fair enough I reckon. The problem with DB is mostly that overcrowding occurs when trains are cancelled – it’s to do with lack of reliability rather than anything else.

  8. Krist van Besien

    Regarding the Jingle: David Gilmore wrote a song inspired by it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1v7hXEQhsQ

    He apparently had a bit of weird conversation with the original composer of the jingle when he inquired how he could get the rights to use it.

  9. More than any of this … rail freight in France is catastophic.

  10. White_Rabbit

    I know I’m late, but you mentioned the Icelandic volcano. Well, my parents were in Zaragoza at the time, with 4 friends. No planes for Italy. So they took the train to Barcelona, than maybe another train to Girona, then a bus as close to the border as possibile. Me and a friend drove a rented minibus all the way from Italy to get them home because of a strike of french railways XD

  11. Joost Overdijkink

    Excellent summary of all that is wrong with French railways and how to fix it. Although compulsory reservation on some services does enhance the experience for travellers. My problem with the tickets is that they use the yield system, which inflated the prices to obscene levels. if they stopped doing that AND introduced an (half) hourly regular interval service, you would need less reservation trains because there would be a greater offer.
    Only point I strongly disagree is with the point that finds Siemens ICE interiors better. I find the difference the comfort level of TGV much higher. Chairs are larger, softer, and plush, with wider, softer armrests and generally more comfortable; the folding tables are of useful size and at the right hight for laptop work; the decoration and colouring is friendlier and breaths more luxuriousness then the plastic cafeteria-style of ICE; the TGV is less noisy (also due to use of carpet almost everywhere); the ride is very smooth on HSL. The ICE is the opposite of all of that. It offers seating at par with a Nissan Micra for long-distance services! And the ride throws you all over the place. And finally, it looks and feels so damn flimsy and cheap! Whenever I travel from France to Germany and back I try to make sure that I am on TGV service, not the ICE.
    Lastly, all you other points and solutions are very valid. But the French will respond to them by saying: “That is not possible here; This is France”… 😉 Believe me, I have tried it on people…

  12. Charles

    The main argument seems to be : “Germany does it better, so we should replicate it here !”.

    Have you travelled with Deutsche Bahn of late ?

    Thanks but no thanks.

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