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Rail travel in France

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A TGV crossing the Cize-Bolozon viaduct over the Ain river

Trains are a great way to get around in France. You can get from pretty much anywhere to anywhere else by train. For long distances, use the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, or High-speed train) on which reservations are obligatory. But if you have time, take the slow train and enjoy the scenery. The landscape is part of what makes France one of the top tourist destinations in the world.

Overview[edit]

Map of high speed rail in France


The French national railway network is managed by SNCF Réseau, a branch of the nationalised company SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français).

Passenger trains are operated by different companies:

  • SNCF operates most of the trains (high-speed, long-distance normal-speed, regional normal-speed).
  • Ouigo is a brand of SNCF, low-cost TGVs between Tourcoing (next to Lille), Rennes, Nantes, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Marseille. This service is modeled after low-cost airlines: tickets are cheap (start at €10), but you'll have to pay extra if you want to bring more than a hand luggage, a seat with a power socket, and you'll have to be at the train station at least 30 minutes before departure. Ouigo trains don't serve the main train stations of Paris, but stations in the suburbs (Massy TGV, Marne-la-Vallée-Chessy TGV - Disneyland, Charles de Gaulle airport TGV) that can be reached in about 45 minutes from the centre of Paris with public transit.
  • Thello operates a daily night train between Paris and Venice, and 3 daily day trains between Nice and Milan (with one train operating between Marseille and Milan)
  • International high-speed services connecting to the rest of Europe are operated by several companies, including Eurostar (London), Thalys (Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne), izy (Paris-Brussels) TGV Lyria (Switzerland), DB (Germany) and RENFE (Barcelona).

Each company has its own conditions of carriage, and most of them do not accept SNCF reduction cards for international journeys (Ouigo is also distinct from SNCF within France despite being owned by SNCF).

The SNCF website Gares & Connexions provides live train schedules, keeping you informed about platform numbers and delays. This information is also available on smartphones via the free application SNCF.

Within France[edit]

SNCF operates almost all passenger lines within France, the only competitor is Thello, with a daily round-trip between Marseille and Nice.

SNCF[edit]

SNCF operates a number of different kinds of high speed and normal trains:

  • TER (Train Express Régional): Regional trains and the backbone of the SNCF system. TER are sometimes slower but do serve most stations. Available on Eurail and InterRail passes. As they are managed by each region, SNCF conditions of carriage do not fully apply, and you are not entitled for a refund in case of a delayed train. Booking is available in two classes: première classe (first class) is less crowded and more comfortable but can also be about 50% more expensive than deuxième classe (second class). There is no food or drink service on board. A few trains are equipped with power sockets next to some or all seats.
  • Intercités: Long-distance normal-speed trains (see network map. Includes lines with compulsory seat reservations (light green on the map) and lines for which seat reservations are optional (dark green on the map). The reservation-optional trains are what one will often use on passes. There is no food or drink service on board. A few trains are equipped with power sockets next to some or all seats.
  • Night train services (Intercités de Nuit) also exist, although they are slowly phased out. These include couchettes second class (6 bunk beds in a compartment), first class (4 bunks) and Reclining seats. Wagon-lits (a compartment with 2 real beds) were totally withdrawn from French overnight trains. However, you can ask for a "private room" (in first class). As of winter 2018, night trains link Paris with Briançon, Toulouse, Rodez, Latour-de-Carol, Cerbère. The train attendant sells snacks and drinks. Very few trains are equipped with power sockets next to some or all seats/beds.
  • TGV (Trains à Grande Vitesse): The world-famous French high-speed trains run from early morning to late evening in most of France (see network map). Most trains operate to/from Paris, reaching Lille in 1 hr, Reims in 45 minutes, Metz or Nancy in 1 hr 30 mins, Strasbourg in 1 hr 45 mins, Dijon in 1 hr 30 mins, Lyon in 2 hrs, Marseille in 3 hrs, Nice in 5 hrs 45 mins, Montpellier in 3 hrs 30 mins, Toulouse in 4 hrs, Bordeaux in 2 hrs, Nantes in 2 hrs, Rennes in 1 hr 30 mins, but some trains also link cities without stopping in Paris. In the process of being renamed Inoui. There is a bar in coach 4 or 14 that sells drinks, snacks, and microwaved meals, but no proper restaurant (there is no bar service between Paris-Lille and Paris-Reims). Wifi is slowly rolled out, SNCF expects all train to be offering wifi by the end of 2018.
  • Ouigo: the low-cost version of TGV, with service between Tourcoing (next to Lille), Rennes, Nantes, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Marseille, Strasbourg. Some Ouigo trains to Nantes, Rennes, and Bordeaux, leave from Paris-Montparnasse, but most Ouigo trains serve stations in the suburbs (Massy TGV, Marne-la-Vallée-Chessy TGV - Disneyland, Charles de Gaulle airport TGV) that can be reached in about 45 minutes from the centre of Paris with public transit. This service is modeled after low-cost airlines: tickets are cheap (start at €10), but you'll have to pay extra if you want to bring more than a hand luggage, a seat with a power socket, and you'll have to be at the train station at least 30 minutes before departure. There is no food or drink service on board. There is no wifi on board, and no plans for it.
Fare system (TER, Intercités, TGV)[edit]

The SNCF fare system is a bit complex but still easy to understand.

All Intercités and TGV tickets are exchangeable and refundable, minus a fee, before departure. On those trains, you have to travel on the exact train you bought a ticket for. Tickets are generally cheaper the further in advance they are purchased.

For regional trains (TER) and Intercités without a reservation, tickets purchased at a ticket office are valid for any train within one to seven days (depending on the region you travel in).

If you plan to do more than 4 long-distance trips during your stay, investing in a reduction card may be worth it. They cost €49, are valid 1 year, and you will need to put a photo on it:

  • Carte Avantage Jeune, for youths aged 12-27, and Carte Avantage Senior, for adults older than 60, offer 30% discount on TGV and Intercités tickets, and 60% for up to 3 kids aged 4-11 travelling with the card holder.
  • Carte Avantage Week-End and Carte Avantage Famille can be subscribed by anyone, they offer 30% discount on TGV and Intercités tickets for the card holder and any accompanying adult, and 60% for up to 3 kids aged 4-11 travelling with the card holder. To get the discount with these cards, you *have to* book a return trip ticket, with at least a week-end day or night between each leg (they can be separated by up to 61 days).

The discount rate offered on TER depends on the region you travel in: some regions offer up to 50% discounts with these cards, others offer nothing, see this map here.

Fare system (Ouigo)[edit]

Basically, the earlier you book, the cheaper it is. Tickets are non-refundable. SNCF reduction cards are not valid.

Thello[edit]

Thello operates a daily round-trip between Marseille and Nice (continuing further east to Milan), with Intercity stock. Two classes are available:

  • 2nd class, with 53 cm wide seats reclining to 105°
  • 1st class, with 63 cm wide seats reclining to 110°

All cars have air conditioning, all seats have a light, a table, and a power socket (type C, compatible with French and Italian systems). There is no wifi connection.

On Monday to Friday, the train leaves Marseille at 15:29, and arrives in Nice at 18:02. On Saturday and Sunday, the train leaves Marseille at 11:24, and arrives in Nice at 14:04. On the other direction, the train leaves Nice every day at 19:55, and arrives in Marseille at 22:31. The train stops at Toulon, St Raphaël, Cannes, Antibes.

Adult fares between Marseille and Nice range between €15-€30 in 2nd class and €20-€40, cheaper than the fixed price of TER regional trains.

International[edit]

Many companies operates lines between France and the neighbouring countries, but there is almost no competition between them.

To/from the UK[edit]

Eurostar is the only option, with high-speed trains between:

  • Paris, Lille, Calais Fréthun in France, and Ashford, Ebbsfleet, and London in the UK, from early morning to late evening, several times a day
  • London, Ashford, Ebbsfleet and Marne-la-Vallée - Disneyland, once a day, with a morning departure from London, and an afternoon departure from Marne-la-Vallée.
  • London, Ashford, Lyon, Avignon, and Marseille, 1 to 5 times a week depending on the season, with an early morning departure from London, and an afternoon departure from Marseille. On the northbound way, you will be required to exit the train in Lille for passport and security controls, before reboarding the same train 75 mins later.

Detailed timetable are available on Eurostar website.

Three classes are available:

  • Standard, the equivalent of the 2nd class
  • Standard Premier, the equivalent of the 1st class, with a light meal
  • Business Premier, the equivalent of the 1st class, with a full meal, and access to Eurostar lounges in Paris and London

Wifi and power sockets are available in almost all trains.

Due to safety regulations, and the fact that the UK is not part of the Schengen area, Eurostar has airport-like facilities at the train stations, with passport control and X-Ray of your luggage: you will have to be at the train station at least 30 minutes before your scheduled departure (10 minutes if you hold a Business Premier ticket).

Book early (reservation opens 6 months in advance), as fares can be really expensive on Eurostar (up to €236 one-way between Paris and London in Standard class). If you're really flexible, Eurostar Snap offers discounted tickets between 1 and 4 weeks before departure, but you'll only get to select the day and a morning or afternoon departure: your exact schedule will be given only 2 days before departure.

To/from Belgium[edit]

Eurostar, IZY, SNCB, SNCF and Thalys offer services between France and Belgium, but mostly don't compete with each other.

Eurostar[edit]

Eurostar operates high-speed trains between Lille and Brussels, for a fixed price of €30 in 2nd class or €48 in 1st class.

IZY[edit]

IZY, a brand of Thalys, operates up to three daily high-speed trains between Paris and Brussels, but with only a short part of the trip on high speed tracks: the journey is about 45 minutes longer compared to Thalys, but substantially cheaper.

SNCB[edit]

SNCB operates intercity trains between Lille and Mouscron, Kortrijk, Ghent, Antwerp, Tournai, Mons, and Namur.

SNCF[edit]

SNCF operates high-speed trains between the east half of France (Strasbourg, Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier, Perpignan, but not Paris) and Brussels.

Thalys[edit]

Thalys operates high-speed between Paris, Brussels, Antwerp, and Liège, and between Lille, Brussels and Antwerp, as well as weekly summer seasonal services between Marseille and Brussels/Antwerp, and weekly winter seasonal services between Bourg Saint Maurice and Brussels/Antwerp. Free wifi and power sockets at the seat are available in all trains.

There is an airport-like security screening before you can board the Thalys at Paris-Nord, try arriving at least five minutes before departure at the station.

To/from the Netherlands[edit]

Thalys operates trains between Paris, Lille, Rotterdam, Schiphol airport, and Amsterdam, as well as weekly summer seasonal services between Marseille and Amsterdam, and weekly winter seasonal services between Bourg Saint Maurice and Amsterdam (with intermediate stops in France and the Netherlands). Free wifi and power sockets at the seat are available in all trains.

There is an airport-like security screening before you can board the Thalys at Paris-Nord, try arriving at least five minutes before departure at the station.

To/from Germany[edit]

Deutsche Bahn, Saarbahn, SNCF, SWEG, and Thalys, operate trains to Germany.

Deutsche Bahn[edit]

DB operates two lines of regional trains between France and Germany:

  • Between Wissembourg and Neustadt an der Weinstraße (once every hour), with some trains continuing to Mainz and Koblenz on Sundays
  • Between Lauterbourg and Wörth am Rhein (once every hour)

Deutsche Bahn / SNCF (Alleo)[edit]

Deutsche Bahn and SNCF operate a joint-venture service between Paris, Lorraine TGV, Forbach, Saarbrücken, Kaiserslautern, Mannheim, Frankfurt am Main, Strasbourg, Karlsruhe, Stuttgart, Ulm, Augsburg, Munich, as well as between Marseille, Lyon, and Frankfurt am Main (with intermediate stops between Marseille and Frankfurt). Some services are operated by SNCF trainsets (the train is therefore designated as TGV), while some other are operated by DB trainsets (designated as ICE). Both feature 2 classes of service, a trilingual crew (French, German, English), and power sockets at every seat. ICE trainsets offer free wifi within Germany only.

While SNCF and DB jointly operate these trains, each operator has its own fares and fare system: compare the price between both operators before booking, or use Trainline as they automatically compare both prices and offer the cheapest one.

Saarbahn[edit]

Saarbahn operates a light-rail service between Sarreguemines and Saabrücken, with a departure every 30 minutes most of the day.

SNCF[edit]

SNCF operates a TER line between Forbach and Saarbrücken (once every hour), with connections with trains arriving from Metz.

SWEG[edit]

SWEG operates a regional service between Strasbourg and Offenburg, with a train every 30 minutes to 2 hours.

Thalys[edit]

Thalys operates high-speed trains between Paris and Aachen, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf airport, Duisburg, Essen, and Dortmund. Free wifi and power sockets at the seat are available in all trains.

There is an airport-like security screening before you can board the Thalys at Paris-Nord, try arriving at least five minutes before departure at the station.

To/from Poland, Belarus, Russia[edit]

RZD operates a weekly train between Paris, Strasbourg, and Moscow, through Germany, Poland, and Belarus, arriving/departing France on Thursdays.

To/from Luxembourg[edit]

SNCF operates trains to Luxembourg

To/from Switzerland[edit]

Lyria and SNCF operate trains to Switzerland.

To/from Italy[edit]

SNCF and Thello operate trains to Italy.

Thello[edit]

Thello operates two lines between France and Italy:

A night train between Paris (Gare de Lyon) and Venice (Santa Lucia), stopping at Dijon, Milan, Brescia, Verona, Vicence, Padova, Venice (Mestre). Two classes are available:

  • Couchette, cheaper but less comfortable, available with either 6 beds (from €35) or 4 beds (from €55). A bottle of water is included in the price, and you can buy breakfast or snacks in the dining car.
  • Cabin, a bit more expensive but more comfortable, available with either 3 beds (from €75), 2 beds (from €95), 1 bed (from €115). A bottle of water and breakfast in the dining car are included.

The beds are rather short (180 cm/5 ft 11 in): if you're tall you may have issues fitting in.

To/from Monaco[edit]

SNCF and Thello operate trains between Marseille, Nice and Monaco.

To/from Spain[edit]

CP, EuskoTren, RENFE, and SNCF, operate trains between France and Spain.

To/from Portugal[edit]

CP operates a daily night-train between Hendaye and Lisbon.

Booking tickets[edit]

Two SNCF vending machines. The blue one sells only TER regional tickets. The yellow one sells everything else.

Booking tickets online can be quite a confusing process: the SNCF does not sell tickets online by itself, and it is possible to book the same journey through a number of different travel agencies websites (in different languages and currencies). The fares for journeys inside France are the same with every travel agency.

  • OUI.sncf French language booking website by Expedia and the SNCF. It can get sometimes confusing, and is known to hardly work when you try to buy a ticket from abroad or with a non-French credit card. Be careful: you will need the credit card that has been used for payment to retrieve your tickets from the ticket machines. If you don't have it, your tickets will be lost, and you will need to buy new tickets. Does not sell Thello tickets.
  • Trainline French, English, German, Spanish and Italian language booking website. It aims to be as easy to use as possible. Unlike "OUI.sncf", you don't need your credit card to retrieve the tickets, only the reservation number and the last name entered for reservation. You can pay with Visa, MasterCard, American Express or Paypal. Tickets can be printed or downloaded on your mobile phone or Apple watch or Android watch. This website sells tickets for 19 European countries, including Deutsche Bahn (DB, german rails) tickets for trips in France and Germany, Lyria tickets for trips to Switzerland, Eurostar for trips to the UK, Thalys for trips to Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, Thello tickets for trips to Italy, and RENFE-SNCF for trips to Spain. For Alleo (SNCF-DB joined operation) journeys between France and Germany, Trainline automatically compares SNCF and DB fares, and shows you the cheapest of both (although it's for the same train, SNCF and DB have their own fares).
  • RailEurope are booking agencies owned by the SNCF. Fares will often be more expensive on these sites since they charge a premium for some reason.
  • Thello only sells Thello tickets.

SNCF tickets can also be booked from vending machines in railway stations. Ticket booths and kiosks are being phased out and, as of 2019, have disappeared from most small stations.

Getting on board[edit]

To find your train, locate your train number and the departure time on the departures board. There will be a track ("Voie") number next to the train and departure time. Follow signs to that track to board the train. You will have a reserved seat on TGV trains. On other long-distance trains, you can optionally make reservations (at least one day in advance); if you do not have one you may use any unused seat not marked as reserved. To find your reserved seat, first look for the train coach number ("Voit. No"). Pay attention to the possible confusion between track number (Voie) and coach (voiture) number (abbreviated Voit) As you go down the track, the coach number will be displayed on an LCD screen on the car, or maybe just written in the window or right next to the doors.

The reserved seat rules are lax; you are allowed if you switch seats or use another seat (of the same class of course) if it is empty because the TGV is not fully booked or the other person agrees to switch with you. The only requirement is not to continue using a reserved seat if the person holding the reservation claims it.

On the main lines, TGVs often run in twos. There are two possibilities: either the two TGVs are considered as one train with one train number (in this case each coach has a different number); or the two TGVs are considered as separate trains which run together during a part of their journey, with two different train numbers (in this case, the two trains may have two close numbers such as 1527 and 1537), and each train will have its own coach numbering. So be sure you are in the right train (the train number is shown on the LCD screen, with the coach number).

Platform car position indicator. In this example, car number 2 is aligned with the "R" sign on track J.

If you are early, there is often a map somewhere on the platform (displayed either on LCD screens, or on older LED panels marked "Composition des trains") that will show how the train and car numbers will line up on the platform according to letters that appear either on the ground or on signs above. That way, you can stand by the letter corresponding with your coach number and wait to board the train closest to your coach. You can easily go from one coach to another, so if you are very late, jump in any coach of the same class before the train starts, wait until most people are seated, then walk to your coach and seat number.

Beware: To avoid any form of fraud, paper tickets must be punched by an automatic machine ("composteur") before entering the platform area to be valid. Older machines are bright orange, newer machines are yellow and gray. The machines are situated at the entrance of all platforms. Failure to punch the ticket may entitle you to a fine even if you are a foreigner with a limited French vocabulary, depending on how the conductor feels, unless you approach the conductor as quickly as possible and request that your ticket be validated. Likewise if you step aboard a train without a ticket, you must find the conductor ("contrôleur") and tell him about your situation before he finds you. However, printouts of e-Billet electronic tickets do not have to be punched: in doubt, punch it anyway, you won't be fined for punching an e-Billet.

French information booths, especially in larger train stations, can be quite unhelpful, especially if you do not understand much French. If something does not seem to make sense, just say "excusez-moi" and they should repeat it.

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