France was the first European country to adopt the principle of high-speed passenger trains on dedicated right-of-way lines. The first TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) line, between the outskirts of Paris and the outskirts of Lyon, was built primarily because the older-generation main line was reaching its maximum capacity with a mix of heavy passenger and freight traffic. Rather than add two additional tracks to the existing line, with some tough curves and grades, French planners decided instead to build a completely separate passenger line that would incorporate Shinkansen high-speed design concepts proved successful in Japan.
The first TGV line (Sud-Est) Paris to Lyon opened in 1981, followed by Paris to Le Mans and Tours (Atlantique) in 1989, Paris to Lille and Calais (Nord) in 1993 to accommodate the new high-speed Chunnel trains, extension of the Nord line into Belgium in 1997, extension of the Sud-Est line to Marseille in 2001, and Paris to Nancy (Est) in 2007. Next came two isolated lines, across the Spanish border from Perpignan and the isolated Rhin-Rhone segment between Dijon and Mulhouse in 2011. The current network was completed out in 2016-2017, with extension of the Est line to Strasbourg and extension of the Atlantique lines to Rennes and Bordeaux. Although future routes are proposed, no new construction is fully designed and funded.
With the exception of the two short isolated segments, the primary network now radiates north, east, southeast and southwest and west from Paris. Each main line uses a different Paris terminal, but a bypass around central Paris connects all main lines, with connection stations at Charles De Gaulle Airport and Marne-le-Valee. Most trains operate directly into central Paris stations, but a few daily trains connect two different lines via the bypass. TGV trains operate more slowly over conventional tracks beyond the end of high-speed trackage to reach a wide range of points in France, Benelux, Germany, Italy and Switzerland.
French Rail “Brands”
Most TGV trains are operated by SNCF, the national French rail system. They are marketed as “TGV” or the new “Inoui” brands. Similar trains to points outside France operate under various brand names, most notably Thalys and Eurostar, and some foreign high-speed trains operate over TGV lines. Recently the SNCF system introduced “Ouigo” low-fare, limited-service high-speed trains on a few key routes, emulating low-fare airlines. Although France is a signatory to the European protocol allowing independent “open source” operators on national rail networks, no independent high-speed operators have yet been established in France.
Beyond TGV, the national French network is dense, with regional and commuter trains operating a wide variety of services. Conventional trains are generally modern, quite fast and comfortable by US standards.
As in the UK and elsewhere, French TGV fares are capacity-controlled, with advance-purchase fares on some trains available for as little as 25 percent of the day-of-travel price. But the biggest discounts on any route, on any day, are likely to be available on only a few itineraries.
Individual Tickets or Railpass?
The question of whether to buy individual tickets or a railpass is not as clear as it is in the UK. The French railpass costs range from a one-day version, $91 in second class and $122 in first, to 8 travel days during a month for $304 in second class, $404 in first, or $38/$50.50 per day. Senior discounts of 10 percent bring those costs down a bit more. I took my latest trip before the new Eurial pass makeover, at which time advance-purchase fares were the better bet, but now I would buy a pass.
Although limited through itineraries are available, when you need to transfer from one line to another, you will often find that the most practical alternative is to go through the Paris terminals, arriving at one major station and leaving at another. Transfer between Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est is easy; it’s just a 2000-foot walk. But Gare Montparnasse is a big schlep from either. You can do it by Metro line 4, but with my bad back and baggage, coping with the many stairs and long underground corridors made the Metro unattractive. Instead, I opted for a taxi; it seemed well worth the 20 euros cost. Travelers arriving in France from London on Eurostar and heading to destinations other than Paris should look first to making a connection at Lille Europe, where same-station transfers are available to TGVs headed throughout France. It’s a lot easier than schlepping between Paris terminal stations.
Currently, Gare Montparnasse is a nasty place. It’s being upgraded, with lots of construction, and when I went through, there were absolutely no benches or seats for travelers waiting their trains. I saw people sitting on narrow ledges and on the floor, and others just standing around. Presumably, at some point, the station will be more easy to use, but for now I suggest you avoid it if possible.
Given the modest price differential, I prefer to travel TGV in first class. Seats are arranged 1-2 across the car, and, as a solo traveler, I find those single seats are extremely inviting. But second class is perfectly fine, and much more comfortable than economy air. Either way, make sure you have a reserved seat.
Finding your seat is easy. A half-hour or so before departure, the big stations announce the track and platform your train will use, and you will see a posting showing where on the platform you should wait to be close to the car in which you have a reservation.
All in all, rail is my first choice for visiting dispersed destinations. The TGVs are tops, and even the local trains are fast and comfortable.
— Ed Perkins, editor
For more travel tips from Ed Perkins, see our companion site Ed on Travel