My trip today, 10 April 2018: Toulouse (population: 467000, 1.3 million in the urban area) to Béziers (population: 75000). Distance 176km by train, 180km by road. Departure time: sometime around 1500. Towns along the route: Castelnaudary (population: 11000), Carcassonne (48000), Narbonne (53000). Beyond Béziers are Montpellier, Nîmes and Marseille.

Here are today’s trains for the route for the period I need:

The previous TER (regional train) connection leaves at 1010 and arrives at 1222. Then you have a TGV and an InterCités leaving 4 minutes apart (InterCités cancelled today due to the SNCF strike yesterday), then a smattering of TERs, TGVs and InterCités later in the day. Remember too that all TGV (anywhere) and InterCités (on this route) are compulsory reservation – if it is full you cannot get on.

Essentially you have no flexible connection on this route for close to a four hour period in the middle of the day – the only connection in the middle of the day involves a bus and doubling the journey time:

Note that this is not some route in the middle of nowhere. It is a mainline, electrified, non-high-speed line connecting important regional centres. And there are so very few trains, and even fewer that you can just walk up to the station and get on.

So when the justification is made that SNCF needs to be reformed because 10000km of lines transport just 2% of the passengers, is it because no-one wants to travel there? Or because the lines exist, but there are actually no trains at convenient times running on them? Imagine you need to change your plans last minute… and that is the middle of the day. Tough, you’re stuck. So you buy a car instead.

It’s hard to find an exactly comparable route in Germany, but I think München (population: 1.4 million) to Heidenheim an der Brenz (48000), passing Augsburg (289000) and Ulm (122000) ought to be similar – distance is 170 kilometres, and even though the trip takes longer than Toulouse-Béziers, look at the density of connections! You could rely on this – and this is public service! Admittedly a standard ticket is more than in France though.

What then does a public service railway actually look like?

That it gets you where you want to go, regularly, and at whatever time of the day? That you can rely on it? Because by that measure SNCF is a major failure in terms of public service. Even on a route like Paris – Lyon on a TGV does not fulfill that – try doing that last minute at a peak hour and you will not be let on the train as it is compulsory reservation.

Productivity of SNCF workers is low, and is getting worse (see the latter part of this), SNCF has a chronic debt burden, 5500km of line is subject to speed restrictions due to the poor quality of the infrastructure, freight volumes are down (end of this), and the heavy investment made in high speed lines will not make a return on the investment. But SNCF – seemingly without a competitive tender – wants to award the construction of 100 new high speed trains to Alstom. Surprise, that.

Drawing all of the strands of this together, it looks to me that SNCF has been run for the past few decades in the interests of the people who build high speed lines and the people who build its high speed trains (Alstom), and not in the interests of the people that actually use it – the passengers and the freight shippers. Meanwhile its workers have sought to defend their rights and have become less productive compared to their counterparts in other European railways. If that little combination is not reason for some major reform, then what is?

So then, how was my trip? The tracks at Toulouse Matabiau looked like they needed some attention for a start! I then took the 1555 TER train, changing in Narbonne. A single ticket cost me €29.10. The trains were bumpy Bombardier units that had seen better days and could do with a good clean. No wifi, but at least a power plug. The staff checking tickets (why three of them in a 3-car TER? – that productivity again) were friendly. And it got me there. The InterCités behind me meanwhile has a delay of 120 minutes…


  1. Bart Van de Walle

    Seems about right. For one reason or the other, the French never warmed up to the Taktfahrplan, which allows not just for more and better readable service, but also more efficient staff planning. The SNCF is in the business of running trains, not transporting people or freight, it seems.
    Yes, France is a lot more centralized, in spite of the formation of the regions and some devolved competences like for TER, but they have never been decentralized mentally, and as long as local politicians cry foul when their once daily (or once weekly…) train to Paris is cancelled, but can’t be bothered with a better service to a neighbouring larger city…

  2. All valid criticisms and an illustration of the dangers of a publically-owned operator going unchallenged.

    On the other hand, once competition is allowed and SNCF can use Veolia to undercut itself/every other Tom, Dick, or Harry can make regional transport authorities offers they can’t refuse, everyone will get fired and half of them reemployed for half the money. Then trains will be cancelled due to lack of staff rather than due to the strike action of – admittedly somewhat over-entitled – staff. (See the Münster-Bielefeld service via Warendorf for a prime example of this in Germany or, for the excessive, exaggerated comedy version, the Southern franchise in the UK).

    Result? Exactly the same except the trains are slightly shinier – all the more so given that they get repainted with every (frequent) change of operator – and a few more people vote far right because, for some reason, they’re being asked to do the same job for half the money and on worse conditions…

    No, I don’t have an answer on how to get the balancing act right, either.

  3. Anthony

    At the moment, I’d argue Italy has one of Europe’s best rail systems: Italo — the “private option” — keeps the main-line high-speed services competitively priced and regional trains are very affordable and being replaced with new equipment.

  4. Patricia Leighton

    I have never known such awful service as the route from Marseilles to Italy. It is not just the unreliable trains-some so old they seem to be falling apart, but the stations. Nice station is a total joke if you are trying to buy a ticket. Such complicated, obtuse methods for queuing, paying etc etc-and that station has been ‘refurbished’.And you are right-so many staff but nobody doing anything. Trains are bad in the UK and far too expensive but this French system is frankly awful

    • Oh and have you you tried it at Ventimiglia? There half the trains go to France, but those trains are not on the timetables or the screens due to a dispute between SNCF and Trenitalia. I *hope* it has changed now – was like that when I was there a couple of years back.

    • Anthony


      Trains aren’t bad in the UK, but they are so expensive that nobody can use them. I’ll take SNCF — any continental system, really — over the UK system. Dealing with the UK rail system is like dealing with the U.S. health care system — crazy prices, ridiculous ticketing that is impossible to understand and you never know if you’re getting the best deal or not, no high-speed service.

  5. Dear Patricia, some of your comments surprise me. I have been living both in France and the UK, and, of course, used trains in both countries. I found that British trains are as old as some regional French trains, except that they are sometimes used for more frequented lines in the UK.
    I have never been to Nice train station, but I have been to many other train stations in France, including Paris (Montparnasse, gare de l’est, gare du Nord…), Strasbourg, Nantes, Rennes, Avignon, etc. I do not quite understand what the issue was with the queuing. It is usually clearly indicated by queue separators to get to the counter, but this might not be the case in Nice station. Otherwise, you have some Ticket terminals spread across the station to avoid a crowd of people, all queuing at the same place.
    As for the paying methods, you can either pay by card, cash or even check at the counter, and by card at the machine – UK debit cards and credit cards do work (I tried it before), but again, I have not been to Nice station and might not be able to understand. I really do feel that the French system of queuing an ticket buying is very similar in French and British train stations.
    As for delayed trains and staff doing nothing, just being present, I guess it is the same in both countries. I have been in this situation before in both countries, and the experience was very similar. However, things might seem a bit worse in France since most SNCF workers speak in an approximative English, or should I say Frenglish.
    I do not think that any of these two system is better than the other. I guess I would just slightly prefer the French system for a single reason: ticket price.

  6. There is just something slightly bugging me about your article and screenshots.
    The French train system is on strike while the German does not seem to be.
    I think it would be far more interesting and relevant to compare both systems while in the same type of situation.
    Although I do believe the German train system to be better than the British and French ones overall (I used to take the train regularly in Germany a few years back).

  7. Wolfgang

    I think one could also written your piece, using the same facts, in another perspective. I would highlight two points:
    1) Isn’t it odd that, as your screenshots demonstrate, the only reliable information about regional trains in France comes from the Deutsche Bahn Website? (I have actually tried to find out why that is: in short, if you ask SNCF, they say it is because, the main website selling their tickets, is not them, and SNCF takes no responsibilities for their failures; if you ask, they will eventually say that they are not showing all existing trains because either SNCF or the regional government does not allow them to do it)
    2) Look at the huge potential! There actually are still a lot of regional lines in France, and they could be repaired or upgraded. Doing so would create jobs and it would only take a reasonable amount of management effort to run trains on them efficiently. The current government has promised a lot of change, so why not start with an efficient transport system?

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