Trains in France

Fares, booking, facilities and general information

The French railway network extends to every corner of France. It’s the largest in western Europe, with over 31,000km of track, serving around 5,000 passenger stations and carrying over 800m passengers per year.

Trains in France

The French railway system is operated by the state-owned Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF) and is one of the most efficient in Europe. French high-speed trains compete successfully with road and air travel over long distances, both in cost and speed.

Despite huge government subsidies and recent price increases, however, the SNCF manages to run up an annual deficit. The destination of trains is usually written or displayed on the outside of carriages.

Main Lines

Many things in France emanate from or are routed via Paris and this is true of the railway system. (Paris and the Ile-de-France region provide the SNCF with around two-thirds of its passengers.) There aren’t many cross-country train routes in France and it’s often necessary to travel via Paris to reach a destination.

There are direct trains from French cities to many major European cities, including Amsterdam, Barcelona, Basle, Berlin, Brussels, Cologne, Florence, Frankfurt, Geneva, Hamburg, London, Madrid, Milan, Munich, Rome, Rotterdam, Venice, Vienna and Zurich. Some of the international services run only at night, and daytime journeys may also involve a change of train.

Paris has six main railway stations, each serving a main line ( grande ligne), as detailed below:

If you buy a ticket for a journey starting in Paris, the departure station is indicated on it. All the stations mentioned above are on the métro and some are also on the RER. It’s best to allow around a hour to travel between stations, except between Gare Saint-Lazare, Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est, which are close together (the Gare Saint-Lazare and the Gare du Nord are now linked by underground). The main stations in Paris also provide access to the city’s comprehensive suburban rail service ( réseau banlieue).

Tgv

The SNCF operates high-speed trains ( train à grande vitesse, abbreviated to TGV) on most of its main lines. Launched in 1981, these are among the world’s fastest trains, capable of over 550kph (around 350mph). Double-decker TGVs ( Duplex), which were introduced in 1995, have around 45 per cent more capacity than standard trains and no reduction in speed.

TGV services operate to over 50 French cities, carrying more than 40,000 passengers a day. The TGV has revolutionised domestic travel in France, and air travel on TGV routes has fallen significantly, e.g. Paris-Lyon, on which route there are around 35 trains per day in each direction, with over 75 per cent seat occupancy, carrying more than 20,000 passengers daily. It takes just three hours with the TGV, at an average speed of 300kph, to travel from Paris to Marseille.

To run at maximum operating speed a TGV must run on special lines, which presently extend into Belgium ( TGV Nord Europe with a service called Thalys linking Paris with Brussels and Amsterdam) but only as far as Le Mans and Vendôme to the south-west ( TGV Atlantique) and Valence to the south-east ( TGV Méditerranée).

Other destinations are reached via a mixture of dedicated TGV lines and mixed traffic lines. The TGV rail network totals 5,500km (3,400mi) of dedicated and mixed lines, and there are five main lines (see table above). A recent line circumventing Paris means that some services (e.g. Lyon-Nantes and Bordeaux-Lille) are now direct and don’t involve changing trains in Paris.

Recent additions to the TGV network include a twice-daily service from Paris to Saint-Malo (in Brittany), which welcomed its first high-speed train in December 2005, and there are (controversial) plans to extend the TGV network with Paris-Metz (via Reims, Strasbourg and Nancy, scheduled for 2007) and Paris-Bordeaux (via Tours and Angoulême, due for completion in 2013) routes, and a Montpellier-Perpignan-Barcelona link (2009), and routes between Arles and Nice in the south-east and between Rennes and Le Mans in the north-west, although plans (and estimated completion dates) change every few months. The TGV also operates between Paris and Switzerland (Berne, Geneva, Lausanne and Neuchâtel) –- Paris to Geneva, for example, takes around 3.5 hours.

The TGV is almost totally silent and smooth, even when running at its maximum speed. Trains are often long, with up to 20 carriages and four engines. Trains are air-conditioned and include first- and second-class carriages, a bar/relaxation area, a stationery and tobacco shop, and sometimes a nursery. Carriages and compartments are colour-coded: red for first class, blue-green for second class and yellow for the bar. In second-class carriages, seats are arranged in airline fashion and are comfortable with reasonable space, pull down trays and foot rests. First-class seats are naturally more comfortable and roomy, although much more expensive. Luggage space is provided above seats and at the end of carriages.

All seats must be reserved and no standing passengers are permitted. There are ‘mobile-free’ carriages on certain routes and the number of non-smoking seats was recently increased. Smoking is now forbidden in all first class carriages (numbered 5 and 15) and in all carriages on Atlantique routes, and it’s likely that all TGV trains will be completely non-smoking before long.

The basic fare on the TGV is the same as on ordinary trains, except that there’s a booking fee that varies according to the day and time of travel and the length of the journey but averages around 10 per cent of the ticket price; the fee is ‘included’ in the price quoted. Bookings can now be made up to 90 days in advance. Depending on the route and the time of travel, you may need to book weeks, days or just minutes before your departure. A new system allows those who miss their TGV to exchange their ticket for one for the next ordinary train.

A recent initiative is the ‘ Intéractif Détente Train à Grande Vitessei’ ( iDTGV), which consists of two ‘zones’: the ‘ iDzen’, where electronics (including mobile phones) are banned and you can be supplied with magazines, ear plugs and an eye mask to help you doze off, and the ‘ iDzap’, where the opposite applies and you can even hire DVD players and games consoles. You’re even invited to register your interests so that you can be ‘matched’ with like-minded travellers and arrange shared onward transport (and, who knows, accommodation?) with them.

More attractive perhaps are the fares, which start at just €19 for a single journey and can be booked in English via Rail Europe (UK 0870-837 1371, www.raileurope.co.uk/idtgv  ) or in French at www.idtgv.com .

Eurostar

The Channel Tunnel – the world’s most expensive hole in the ground – joins France with the UK by rail, surfacing at Sangatte (near Calais) in Pas-de-Calais and Folkestone in Sussex. Since October 2003, when a new high-speed line from Folkestone to London Waterloo was opened, the London to Paris journey time has been reduced to 2h35m.

The improvement comes at a price: a ‘flexible’ return fare costs over €400, although a ‘fixed’ return trip including a weekend booked at least three weeks in advance can be had for just €70 and return tickets for under €100 can be had from London to other French cities via Paris.

A direct London to Avignon route started in summer 2003. Smoking is prohibited on all Eurostar trains. You can obtain train information in English or make a booking by calling a UK number (01233-617575) or via the Eurostar website (www.eurostar.com ), where cheap late bookings can be made online – but only on Tuesdays! For car-train services through the Channel Tunnel.

Other Trains

Standard trains have either electric ( Corail) or gas turbine ( Turbotrain) locomotives, which, although not in the TGV league, are fast and comfortable. Some branch lines operate express and rapide diesel trains. The slowest trains are the suburban omnibus services (some with double-deck carriages), which stop at every station.

An express or train express régional ( TER) stops only at main stations and is second in speed to the TGV (see above). A rapide is faster than an omnibus but slower than an express. The SNCF also operates an extensive Motorail service.

Some non- TGV international trains, including Trans-Europ-Express ( TEE) and Trans-Europ-Nuit ( TEN), are first class only. Booking is necessary and a supplement is payable in addition to a first-class fare. Booking is recommended on all long-distance trains, particularly during peak periods, e.g. school and public holidays.

Scenic Trains

Despite their love of high-speed trains, the French still have a soft spot for their scenic trains, which they affectionately call petits trains. These include the vapeur du Trieux running from Paimpol to Portrieux in northern Brittany, the petit train de Bligny-sur-Ouche near Beaune in Burgundy, the chemin de fer du Tarn in the south, the chemin de fer du Vivarais from Tournon to Lamastre north of Lyon, the Sécheron vintage electric train south of Grenoble, and the chemin de fer de Provence or train des pignes running between Digne-les-Bains and Nice in the south-east.

Spectacular mountain railways include the train de la mer de glace, which wends its way from Chamonix to Montenvers in the Alps, the petit train jaune running from Villefranche in the Pyrenees and stopping at the highest SNCF station (1,592m/5,223ft), and the petit train de la Rhune, a rack railway which hoists a train to the peak of La Rhune in the Basque country.

Corsica’s le Trinighellu (‘Little Train’) runs on narrow-gauge track and is a delight for train fans. France’s railway preservation society, AJECTA (01 64 08 60 62, www.ajecta.org ), runs excursions from Paris using restored steam trains, and you can take a day trip on the Orient Express from the Gare du Nord to Calais and back or longer trips to the UK and Eastern Europe (01 55 62 18 00, www.orient-express.com ).

Facilities

Trains

Luggage: Most trains have sections at the ends of carriages for the storage of large items of luggage as well as overhead racks for smaller items. Beware of luggage thieves when travelling on trains and try to store your bags in an overhead rack where you can keep an eye on them.

Restaurants & Bars: All TGV and most other fast trains have a bar-buffet and/or a restaurant car ( wagon-restaurant) with waiter service. All rail catering is expensive and, with the exception of restaurant cars, of poor quality by French standards (it’s better to take your own ‘picnic’). On TGV and Corail trains, first-class passengers can order a tray meal at their seat, which should be done when making your booking. Some Corail services provide a Grill-Express and/or self-service restaurant and inter-city trains have a mobile drinks and snacks service ( minibar) at your seat.

Toilets: There are toilets on inter-city trains. If you accidentally drop something down one, be careful how you try to retrieve it. A man who dropped his wallet down a TGV toilet got his hand trapped when he tried to recover it!

Telephones: Public telephones are available on TGVs and permit both domestic and international calls with a télécarte. There are three telephones on each TGV: one in first class, one in second class and one in the bar. The use of mobile phones isn’t allowed on most trains and there are signs indicating this, although many people ignore them.

Smoking: Since the beginning of 2006, smoking has been forbidden on all trains.

Stations

Platforms: Note that station platforms ( quais) aren’t always clearly numbered, so make sure you’re waiting at the correct one. Lines ( voies) often have different numbers from platforms and this can be confusing. TGV platforms have a yellow line marked on the surface, outside which passengers must stand for safety. At smaller stations you may need to cross the track to exit the station; if so, you must be very careful! If you’re seeing someone off at a main station, you must sometimes purchase a platform ticket, although it’s unlikely that anyone will check that you have one.

Restaurants & Bars: Most railway stations have a restaurant in or near them and the main stations in Paris have a choice of restaurants, brasseries and snack bars, most serving good food at a reasonable price. Some, such as the Gare de Lyon restaurant, are famous for their cuisine. Station restaurants in small towns are often well patronised by locals, which is always a good sign. Snacks and drinks at station cafés and bars can be expensive and poor quality. Some main railway stations provide toilets, washing facilities, including hair dryers and showers, and some provide nappy/diaper-changing rooms. There are photocopiers and instant passport photograph machines at most inter-city and international railway stations. At main stations in Lyon, Marseille and Paris (Gare de Lyon) there are kiosks where you can hire portable DVD players and discs (a service known ‘ Cinétrain’).

Shops: In a drive to increase revenue, the SNCF plans to create shopping centres in its 50 or so main stations; a 3,000m2 precinct in Paris’ Gare du Nord station was the first to open, in November 2002.

Luggage: Luggage offices ( consigne) are provided at most stations, where you’re charged around €5 per item (inlcuding bicycles and wheelchairs) for 24 hours. There are also luggage lockers ( consigne automatique) of various sizes, for which you must have the exact change; items may be left for up to 72 hours. Note that luggage lockers may be unavailable if there’s a ‘security alert’. Luggage trolleys are available free at main stations, although you need a €1 coin, which is refunded when the trolley is returned to a storage location (as in supermarkets). However, some stations have temporarily suspended luggage storage facilities because of stricter security measures. Porters are available at most main stations and charge around €1 per bag. People who are unable to carry their bags may request assistance from the reception desk ( accueil) at any main station.

The SNCF doesn’t accept responsibility for lost luggage or luggage stolen from lockers, unless you can prove that there was negligence on its part or that the locker was faulty; even then the compensation is likely to be derisory. However, you can register ( enregistrer) your luggage (including skis) for a fee, in which case you’re entitled to compensation according to the weight of your luggage. You must inspect your luggage when you collect it and make a claim by registered post within three days. The Service Bagages à Domicile leaflet, available at station information desks, gives full information and current charges (08 25 84 58 45).

Parking & Car Rental: Car parks are often provided close to railway stations, where long-term parking costs around €10 for the first 24 hours, reducing thereafter. Monthly parking tickets cost from around €70. You can rent an Avis car from around 200 main railway stations and leave it at any other station which operates the same service. Cars can be booked at the same time as your train ticket.

Bicycles: Bicycles can be hired from many stations and transported on trains. The SNCF publishes a brochure, Guide Train + Vélo.

Tickets

Tickets ( billet) can be purchased by telephone (08 92 35 35 35) and internet (www.voyages-sncf.com ), at station ticket offices, rail travel centres and appointed travel agents and via ticket machines ( billetterie automatique). A ticket must be purchased and validated before boarding a train.

Single tickets are aller simple and return tickets aller-retour. All tickets are valid for two months. There are two classes on most trains: first class ( première classe) and second class ( deuxième classe), with the exception of TEE and TEN international trains, which are first class only. At major stations staff may speak English or other languages, e.g. German, Italian or Spanish.

Tariffs

There are two tariffs ( tarif), depending on the day and the departure time of a journey:

  • Off-peak ( tarif bleu) Usually from 10.00 on Mondays to 15.00 on Fridays, 08.00 on Saturdays to 15.00 on Sundays and 20.00 on Sundays to 06.00 on Mondays.
  • Peak ( tarif blanc) The intervening periods, and on a few special days and public holidays.

The relevant period is indicated on timetables. A daily travel calendar ( Calendrier Voyageurs) is published by the SNCF and is available free at stations; it’s updated every six months. Fares are determined by the tariff applicable at the start of a journey, e.g. a journey that starts in the off-peak period and runs into the peak period is charged at the reduced (‘blue’) tariff. If you’re discovered travelling in a peak (‘white’) period with a ticket that only entitles you to travel off peak, you must pay the higher fare and a fine. Various discounts are available. The above tariff periods don’t apply to TGVs.

Discounts

Season tickets and special discount tickets are available for various types of traveller, including those listed below. The SNCF has a complicated fare structure and you should check to ensure that you pay the lowest possible fare.

Senior Citizens: Those who are over 60 (or as the French delicately put it, those of le troisième âge) can buy a Carte Senior, which costs €50 and provides a 50 per cent reduction in off-peak periods and a 25 per cent reduction in peak periods. There’s also a 25 per cent reduction on international journeys to 27 European countries, and the card can be used on the national railway networks of several European countries. The Carte Senior is valid on all trains except regional trains in Paris and can be purchased from SNCF offices abroad as well as in France.

Carte Senior holders are also entitled to discounts of up to 50 per cent on entertainment and museum fees and other travel discounts. Discounts are often listed in entertainment publications such as Pariscope. Even without a card, those over 60 are entitled to a 25 per cent reduction on all journeys starting in an off-peak period (known as the tarif découverte senior).

Children: Children under four who don’t require a separate seat travel free and children aged from 4 to 11 travel for half-fare. Children under four who do require a separate seat travel for a standard charge of €8 (known as the Forfait Bambin), one way only, which includes any booking fee. The same charge applies to first and second class. Children and youths aged from 12 to 25 can save 20 or 50 per cent (depending on the tariff period) with a card called La Carte 12-25. Children aged from 4 to 14 can travel in the care of a Jeune Voyageur Service ( JVS) host on selected routes for an additional fee of €39. For further information see the booklet, Votre Enfant Voyage en Train or Guide Service Jeune Voyageur.

Children under 12 can buy a Carte Enfant + (€65), which is valid for a year and entitles the holder and up to three other people (one of whom must be an adult) to travel at a 50 per cent reduction during off-peak periods and at a 25 per cent discount during peak periods. It also permits a family dog or cat to travel free. A Carte Enfant + doesn’t include travel on Parisian suburban railways.

Students & Apprentices: Students and apprentices aged up to 21 and 23 respectively can purchase weekly or monthly discount cards for all trains except TGVs (for which a special monthly pass is available). La Carte 12–25 provides a 50 per cent reduction in off-peak periods and 25 per cent off peak-time journeys. It’s valid for one year and costs €49. There’s also Tarif Découverte 12–25 entitling youths to a 25 per cent reduction on journeys started in an off-peak period.

Families: Parents with three or more children aged under 18 can purchase a family card ( Carte Famille Nombreuse), which costs €18, is valid for three years and entitles holders to discounts on all rail fares, whether travelling independently or as a family. Discounts start at 30 per cent for a family with three children and rise to 75 per cent for families with six or more children. The Carte Famille Nombreuse is available only to French residents, as it’s a social service subsidised by the French government. Cards, which take up to ten days to obtain, can be applied for at SNCF stations town halls and family benefit offices, where you must present identification for both parents (including national identity cards if appropriate), birth certificates or copies of your livret de famille or equivalent for each child, and a photograph of each family member.

Couples: Any two adults travelling together have two options for reduced-price rail travel. The first, Découverte à Deux, provides a 25 per cent reduction on all first or second-class travel on journeys starting in an off-peak period. The second, Découverte Séjour, gives a 25 per cent reduction on return journeys of less than 200km (124mi) which include a Saturday night stay.

Groups: Groups of ten or more people of any age travelling together are entitled to discounts of varying amounts. Information is provided at SNCF stations. In all groups, children aged 4 to 11 pay half the reduced fare.

Commuters: Commuters can obtain a season ticket called Modulopass valid for 6 or 12 months, allowing a 50 per cent reduction. An annual season ticket can be paid for in monthly instalments. Weekly ( hebdomadaire) and monthly ( mensuel) commuter tickets are also available in all regions. The cost varies according to whether you want a ticket between two particular stations ( trajets domicile-travail) or a ‘go-anywhere’ card ( carte de libre circulation). You must provide a passport photograph and present your passport or carte de séjour. Those who live more than 75km (47mi) from their place of work may be entitled to an abonnement de travail, valid for a week or a month at a time. You will need confirmation from your employer that you travel more than this distance daily.

Disabled: Disabled passengers are entitled to a range of reductions, depending on the extent of their disability. In certain cases, a person accompanying a disabled person is entitled to travel free. Information is provided in the SNCF booklet Guide Pratique du Voyaguer à Mobilité Réduite.

Other Discounts: Other reductions available include the following:

  • Holiday Tickets You can buy a holiday ticket ( billet séjour) allowing a 25 per cent reduction on a single, return or circular journey of over 1,000km (620mi) or an annual holiday ticket ( billet de congé annuel) allowing a one-time 25 per cent reduction on a single or return ticket for a journey over 200km (124mi). Both tickets are valid for two months and journeys must start during an off-peak period and there must be a Sunday between the outward and return journeys. An annual holiday ticket application should be endorsed by your employer.
  • Advance Purchase Tickets Découverte J8 and Découverte J30 tickets entitle you to fare reductions by paying for your ticket 8 or 30 days in advance. Tickets are available only for the train reserved, and refunds are possible only up to four days before travel. Fares include ordinary seats ( place assise) and ‘beds’ ( place couchée) on overnight trains.

Note that some of the tickets described above are offered by regional transport authorities and may be available in certain areas only. Further details are available from the information or ticket office at any railway station. The SNCF booklet, Le Guide du Voyageur, available from main stations, provides invaluable information.

Pets

You must buy a half-fare second-class ticket for a pet if it weighs over 6kg; it’s also valid in first class. If a pet is transported in a bag or basket no bigger than 45cm x 30cm x 25cm, the single fare is €5.10, irrespective of distance. Dogs must be muzzled. Holders of a Carte Enfant + are entitled to take a dog or cat with them free.

Booking

Seats can be reserved on most trains (a nominal booking fee is included in the ticket price) and must be reserved on TGVs. The fee for a TGV booking varies with the time and day of the week. However, you can travel on the TGV following or preceding the one you booked without changing your ticket. When reserving a seat you can choose first or second class, smoking ( fumeurs) or non-smoking ( non-fumeurs) – in second class only – and a window ( fenêtre) or corridor ( couloir) seat. All TGV tickets include a seat number. Bookings can be made up to two months before departure.

Seats can be reserved via telephone (08 92 35 35 35) and both reserved and paid for online (http://www.voyages-sncf.com). Seats can also be reserved via automatic ticket machines (see below). Eurostar bookings can be made by phone in English (08 92 35 35 39). At main stations, bookings may need to be made at a particular window (marked ‘ Locations’) and there may be a separate window for information (‘ Renseignements’) . Tickets for seats that aren’t paid for in advance must be collected from an SNCF station within 48 hours.

Ticket Machines: Tickets can be purchased from ticket machines ( billetterie automatique) at SNCF stations (the French love ticket machines and using them is usually preferable to queueing). There are dedicated machines ( billetterie automatique grandes lignes) for main line tickets, e.g. a TGV. Machines have touch-sensitive screens and some can be set to operate in various languages by pressing the appropriate flag symbol, e.g. the Union Jack for English (Americans must defer to the British in this rare instance). Payment can be made in cash, although this is now mainly reserved for local journey ticket machines ( billetterie automatique lignes régionales), which sometimes accept only coins. Tickets costing up to €760 can be paid for with a credit or debit card, which you insert in the machine when requested. Some grandes lignes machines accept only cards.

Ticket Validation: With the exception of tickets purchased outside France and passes already marked with a validity date, all tickets are valid for several days and therefore must be date stamped in a special machine ( composteur) before boarding a train. This includes booked TGV tickets (called ‘ Resa’) and the return ticket of a day return. Stamping machines have a sign ‘ COMPOSTEZ VOTRE BILLET’ and are mounted on pillars at the entrance to platforms ( accès aux quais); the SNCF is in the process of replacing existing orange machines, which often don’t work, with new blue ones in an effort to reduce ticket fraud. Insert one end of your ticket in the machine face up and a code number is stamped on the reverse (if you don’t hear a satisfying ‘chonk’ or the stamp is illegible, try again).

If you break a journey and continue it the same day, your ticket remains valid. However, if you break a journey overnight (or longer), you must re-stamp your ticket before continuing your journey. If you validate your ticket and then miss your train, and there are no more trains that day or you decide not to travel, you must go to the ticket office and have your ticket ‘un-validated’.

There are ticket inspectors (who normally operate in threes) on most French trains, and failure to validate your ticket will result in a fine, calculated as follows:

  • If you inform a ticket inspector on the train before he approaches you that you were unable to buy or stamp your ticket for reasons beyond your control, e.g. the ticket office was closed or the composteur was out of order, you will be charged the normal ticket price plus €3 for a journey up to 75km (47mi) or the normal ticket price plus €9 for a journey over 75km (47mi).
  • If a ticket inspector ‘catches’ you without a validated ticket, the fine is the normal ticket price plus €9 (if you pay on the spot) or €31 (if you wish to pay later) if you bought the ticket that day, or the normal ticket price plus €18 (on the spot) or €40 (later) if you bought the ticket at an earlier date.
  • If your ticket is invalid for any other reason, you can be fined €3 on top of the ticket price.
  • If you have an invalid ticket in the Ile-de-France region, the penalties are €20 on the spot or €42 later whatever the circumstances.

If you argue with a ticket inspector, he’s entitled to increase the penalty to over €120. If you’re found guilty of fraud (e.g. you’ve scratched off the date on your ticket or hide in a toilet), you can be fined €130, and persistent offenders face fines of up to €7,500 and six months in prison. It’s illegal to board a train without a ticket, even if you’re merely seeing someone off. There are (controversial) plans to replace ticket inspectors on certain trains with a computerised ticket checking system called Equipment Agent Seul ( EAS).

Refunds: If you buy a ticket for a specific date and seat and then decide not to use it, you can obtain a 100 per cent refund from any SNCF ticket office before and up to an hour after the scheduled time of departure. Thereafter (up to 60 days) a 10 per cent charge is levied on your ticket price, i.e. you obtain a 90 per cent refund. For all unreserved tickets a 10 per cent refund charge is levied, but you must make your claim within the overall validity period printed on the ticket. No refund is possible for a ticket costing €4.50 or less.

The refund charge isn’t levied if the service you planned to use didn’t run, although you must have written evidence from a member of the station staff. If a TGV is over 30 minutes late, the SNCF will refund 30 per cent of the ticket price ( engagement régularité). ( TGV drivers have their bonus reduced if a train is late without good reason.) Other trains must be at least an hour late before 30 per cent of the ticket price is refunded. These refunds apply to journeys of at least 100km (62mi) and don’t apply if a delay, due to maintenance or repair work for example, has previously been announced.

Finding Your Seat

To find your carriage, check the number on your ticket against the notice board showing the layout of trains ( Composition des Trains) or the number on the outside of carriages. TGV carriage numbers are marked on the platform surface and displayed next to doors. Seat numbers are marked on tickets (e.g. ‘ VOIT 18: 32’ = carriage 18, seat number 32) and displayed on the top of seats.

Night Trains

A range of sleeping accommodation is provided on night trains, depending on your budget and the size of your party, as detailed below. You should beware of thieves and armed robbers on overnight trains, especially those running along the Mediterranean coast and across the Italian border. After a spate of robberies a number of years ago security locks were fitted to sleeping compartments; however, you should still take care before opening the door, as crooks sometimes pose as attendants. There are dedicated compartments for women travelling alone. Bookings can be made at SNCF offices, travel agencies and motoring organisations abroad, and at railway stations, rail travel centres and SNCF-appointed travel agencies in France.

There are the following types of ‘accommodation’ on night trains:

  • Reclining Seat – You can (try to) sleep on a reclining seat ( siège inclinable); there’s no charge, but seats must be reserved.
  • CouchettesCouchettes ( places couchées) are provided in four-berth compartments in first class and in six-berth compartments in second class, for which there’s a booking fee of between €15 and €17.50 depending on the type of train. Although a sleeping-bag sheet, pillow and blankets are provided, passengers don’t usually undress, as compartments aren’t segregated according to sex. Washrooms and toilets are provided at the ends of carriages. Couchettes are non-smoking, although smoking is permitted in corridors.
  • Sleepers – Sleepers ( voiture-lits) provide sleeping accommodation for one to three people with a proper bed and private washing facilities. Single and double sleepers are provided in first class, and double and triple sleepers in second class. Each sleeper carriage has an attendant, who serves snacks and drinks. Trains display the TEN ( Trans Euro Nuit) emblem on carriages when they cross borders. Sleepers cost around €100.

Motorail

Motorail is a European network of special trains (known as auto-trains), generally running overnight, carrying passengers and their cars or motorbikes over distances of up to 1,500km (900mi). Caravans cannot be taken on Motorail trains, and you’re recommended not to fit roof racks or roof boxes, as they may not be allowed (there’s no hard and fast rule!), but SUVs and ‘people carriers’ are now admitted (for a £50 surcharge). The SNCF provides an extensive motorail network of some 130 routes linking most regions of France. The principal Motorail services from the UK operate from Calais and Dieppe to Avignon, Biarritz, Bordeaux, Brive-la-Gaillarde, Narbonne, Nice and Toulouse. Trains don’t run every day and on most routes operate during peak months only (e.g. summer and Christmas holidays).

A wide range of sleeping accommodation is available. Breakfast is included in the price and is served in the station buffet on arrival at your destination, although there are interminable queues and it’s usually more convenient to buy breakfast at a local café. Check your car carefully for damage before driving off, particularly the exhaust pipe, which can be dented or broken on ramps. Any damage must be reported before leaving the station. Motorail journeys are expensive (e.g. a minimum of GB£230 for a family to travel from London to Brive-la-Gaillarde one way) and it’s cheaper for most people to drive, although it’s usually slower and not as relaxing (trains are now equipped with a ‘bar car’!). The main advantage of Motorail is that you travel overnight and (with luck) arrive feeling refreshed after a good night’s sleep. Note that there’s a big difference between peak and off-peak fares.

A comprehensive timetable ( Guide Trains Autos et Motos Accompagnées) is published for bookings made through a railway station or travel agent in France, containing routes, tariffs, general information and access maps for motorail stations. Passengers in the UK can obtain a brochure, Motorail for Motorists – the Expressway into Europe. Further information can be found on the French Motorail website ( http://www.raileurope.co.uk/frenchmotorail) or by calling UK 0870-241 5415.

Information & Timetables

All SNCF rail enquiries are now centralised on a premium-rate telephone number (3635 – press 1 for details of delays or cancellations, 2 for recorded timetable information or 3 to speak to someone). The SNCF head office is at 10 place Budapest, 75009 Paris (01 53 25 60 00, www.sncf.com ) and it has offices in many countries, including the UK (French Travel, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0BA, 0870-241 4243 or 0870-584 8848 for European tickets, www.raileurope.co.uk ). Rail information can also be found on the SNCF website (www.voyages-sncf.com ).

The SNCF publishes a free quarterly magazine in some countries, e.g. Top Rail in the UK, plus a wealth of free brochures and booklets detailing its services, including Le Guide du Voyageur, available from French stations. It also organises hotel accommodation, bus and coach services, boat cruises and package holidays. The SNCF has teamed up with Expedia, one of America’s largest online travel agencies, to offer flights, car hire, package holidays and other services (www.voyages-sncf.com ).

At major stations, arrivals ( arrivées) and departures ( départs) are shown on large electronic boards. When you buy a rail ticket with a reserved seat, e.g. for a TGV, the departure time is printed on your ticket.

French timetables ( horaire) are usually accurate, particularly rail timetables for TGV and other fast trains. Rail timetables are published in national, regional and local versions, and also for individual routes or lines. (Note that some routes have separate timetables for each direction!)

The SNCF also publishes three regional timetables: for the Nord Est, Atlantique and Sud Est et Corse. There are separate timetables and guides ( Horaires et Guide Pratique) for TGV routes. Pocket timetables are published for main lines, and a Lignes Affaires timetable is published containing times for a selection of the most popular trains linking major centres from Mondays to Fridays. In most regions, a Guide Régional des Transports is available from local railway and bus stations. Rail timetables are updated twice a year: around 1st June and 24th September (exact dates vary annually).

Many rail services operate only from Mondays to Saturdays ( semaine) and not on Sundays and holidays ( dimanches et fêtes) and some run at different times on different days of the week. Before planning a trip, check that your planned travel dates aren’t ‘special days’ ( jour particulier) such as a public holiday, when there are usually restricted services – unless you have no option.

If your train is late and you want to find out what has happened to it, you can call 08 91 70 50 00.

The French railway system is operated by the state-owned Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF) and is one of the most efficient in Europe. French high-speed trains compete successfully with road and air travel over long distances, both in cost and speed.

Despite huge government subsidies and recent price increases, however, the SNCF manages to run up an annual deficit. The destination of trains is usually written or displayed on the outside of carriages.

Main Lines

Many things in France emanate from or are routed via Paris and this is true of the railway system. (Paris and the Ile-de-France region provide the SNCF with around two-thirds of its passengers.) There aren’t many cross-country train routes in France and it’s often necessary to travel via Paris to reach a destination.

There are direct trains from French cities to many major European cities, including Amsterdam, Barcelona, Basle, Berlin, Brussels, Cologne, Florence, Frankfurt, Geneva, Hamburg, London, Madrid, Milan, Munich, Rome, Rotterdam, Venice, Vienna and Zurich. Some of the international services run only at night, and daytime journeys may also involve a change of train.

Paris has six main railway stations, each serving a main line ( grande ligne), as detailed below:

If you buy a ticket for a journey starting in Paris, the departure station is indicated on it. All the stations mentioned above are on the métro and some are also on the RER. It’s best to allow around a hour to travel between stations, except between Gare Saint-Lazare, Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est, which are close together (the Gare Saint-Lazare and the Gare du Nord are now linked by underground). The main stations in Paris also provide access to the city’s comprehensive suburban rail service ( réseau banlieue).

Tgv

The SNCF operates high-speed trains ( train à grande vitesse, abbreviated to TGV) on most of its main lines. Launched in 1981, these are among the world’s fastest trains, capable of over 550kph (around 350mph). Double-decker TGVs ( Duplex), which were introduced in 1995, have around 45 per cent more capacity than standard trains and no reduction in speed.

TGV services operate to over 50 French cities, carrying more than 40,000 passengers a day. The TGV has revolutionised domestic travel in France, and air travel on TGV routes has fallen significantly, e.g. Paris-Lyon, on which route there are around 35 trains per day in each direction, with over 75 per cent seat occupancy, carrying more than 20,000 passengers daily. It takes just three hours with the TGV, at an average speed of 300kph, to travel from Paris to Marseille.

To run at maximum operating speed a TGV must run on special lines, which presently extend into Belgium ( TGV Nord Europe with a service called Thalys linking Paris with Brussels and Amsterdam) but only as far as Le Mans and Vendôme to the south-west ( TGV Atlantique) and Valence to the south-east ( TGV Méditerranée).

Other destinations are reached via a mixture of dedicated TGV lines and mixed traffic lines. The TGV rail network totals 5,500km (3,400mi) of dedicated and mixed lines, and there are five main lines (see table above). A recent line circumventing Paris means that some services (e.g. Lyon-Nantes and Bordeaux-Lille) are now direct and don’t involve changing trains in Paris.

Recent additions to the TGV network include a twice-daily service from Paris to Saint-Malo (in Brittany), which welcomed its first high-speed train in December 2005, and there are (controversial) plans to extend the TGV network with Paris-Metz (via Reims, Strasbourg and Nancy, scheduled for 2007) and Paris-Bordeaux (via Tours and Angoulême, due for completion in 2013) routes, and a Montpellier-Perpignan-Barcelona link (2009), and routes between Arles and Nice in the south-east and between Rennes and Le Mans in the north-west, although plans (and estimated completion dates) change every few months. The TGV also operates between Paris and Switzerland (Berne, Geneva, Lausanne and Neuchâtel) –- Paris to Geneva, for example, takes around 3.5 hours.

The TGV is almost totally silent and smooth, even when running at its maximum speed. Trains are often long, with up to 20 carriages and four engines. Trains are air-conditioned and include first- and second-class carriages, a bar/relaxation area, a stationery and tobacco shop, and sometimes a nursery. Carriages and compartments are colour-coded: red for first class, blue-green for second class and yellow for the bar. In second-class carriages, seats are arranged in airline fashion and are comfortable with reasonable space, pull down trays and foot rests. First-class seats are naturally more comfortable and roomy, although much more expensive. Luggage space is provided above seats and at the end of carriages.

All seats must be reserved and no standing passengers are permitted. There are ‘mobile-free’ carriages on certain routes and the number of non-smoking seats was recently increased. Smoking is now forbidden in all first class carriages (numbered 5 and 15) and in all carriages on Atlantique routes, and it’s likely that all TGV trains will be completely non-smoking before long.

The basic fare on the TGV is the same as on ordinary trains, except that there’s a booking fee that varies according to the day and time of travel and the length of the journey but averages around 10 per cent of the ticket price; the fee is ‘included’ in the price quoted. Bookings can now be made up to 90 days in advance. Depending on the route and the time of travel, you may need to book weeks, days or just minutes before your departure. A new system allows those who miss their TGV to exchange their ticket for one for the next ordinary train.

A recent initiative is the ‘ Intéractif Détente Train à Grande Vitessei’ ( iDTGV), which consists of two ‘zones’: the ‘ iDzen’, where electronics (including mobile phones) are banned and you can be supplied with magazines, ear plugs and an eye mask to help you doze off, and the ‘ iDzap’, where the opposite applies and you can even hire DVD players and games consoles. You’re even invited to register your interests so that you can be ‘matched’ with like-minded travellers and arrange shared onward transport (and, who knows, accommodation?) with them.

More attractive perhaps are the fares, which start at just €19 for a single journey and can be booked in English via Rail Europe (UK 0870-837 1371, www.raileurope.co.uk/idtgv  ) or in French at www.idtgv.com .

Eurostar

The Channel Tunnel – the world’s most expensive hole in the ground – joins France with the UK by rail, surfacing at Sangatte (near Calais) in Pas-de-Calais and Folkestone in Sussex. Since October 2003, when a new high-speed line from Folkestone to London Waterloo was opened, the London to Paris journey time has been reduced to 2h35m.

The improvement comes at a price: a ‘flexible’ return fare costs over €400, although a ‘fixed’ return trip including a weekend booked at least three weeks in advance can be had for just €70 and return tickets for under €100 can be had from London to other French cities via Paris.

A direct London to Avignon route started in summer 2003. Smoking is prohibited on all Eurostar trains. You can obtain train information in English or make a booking by calling a UK number (01233-617575) or via the Eurostar website (www.eurostar.com ), where cheap late bookings can be made online – but only on Tuesdays! For car-train services through the Channel Tunnel.

Other Trains

Standard trains have either electric ( Corail) or gas turbine ( Turbotrain) locomotives, which, although not in the TGV league, are fast and comfortable. Some branch lines operate express and rapide diesel trains. The slowest trains are the suburban omnibus services (some with double-deck carriages), which stop at every station.

An express or train express régional ( TER) stops only at main stations and is second in speed to the TGV (see above). A rapide is faster than an omnibus but slower than an express. The SNCF also operates an extensive Motorail service.

Some non- TGV international trains, including Trans-Europ-Express ( TEE) and Trans-Europ-Nuit ( TEN), are first class only. Booking is necessary and a supplement is payable in addition to a first-class fare. Booking is recommended on all long-distance trains, particularly during peak periods, e.g. school and public holidays.

Scenic Trains

Despite their love of high-speed trains, the French still have a soft spot for their scenic trains, which they affectionately call petits trains. These include the vapeur du Trieux running from Paimpol to Portrieux in northern Brittany, the petit train de Bligny-sur-Ouche near Beaune in Burgundy, the chemin de fer du Tarn in the south, the chemin de fer du Vivarais from Tournon to Lamastre north of Lyon, the Sécheron vintage electric train south of Grenoble, and the chemin de fer de Provence or train des pignes running between Digne-les-Bains and Nice in the south-east.

Spectacular mountain railways include the train de la mer de glace, which wends its way from Chamonix to Montenvers in the Alps, the petit train jaune running from Villefranche in the Pyrenees and stopping at the highest SNCF station (1,592m/5,223ft), and the petit train de la Rhune, a rack railway which hoists a train to the peak of La Rhune in the Basque country.

Corsica’s le Trinighellu (‘Little Train’) runs on narrow-gauge track and is a delight for train fans. France’s railway preservation society, AJECTA (01 64 08 60 62, www.ajecta.org ), runs excursions from Paris using restored steam trains, and you can take a day trip on the Orient Express from the Gare du Nord to Calais and back or longer trips to the UK and Eastern Europe (01 55 62 18 00, www.orient-express.com ).

Facilities

Trains

Luggage: Most trains have sections at the ends of carriages for the storage of large items of luggage as well as overhead racks for smaller items. Beware of luggage thieves when travelling on trains and try to store your bags in an overhead rack where you can keep an eye on them.

Restaurants & Bars: All TGV and most other fast trains have a bar-buffet and/or a restaurant car ( wagon-restaurant) with waiter service. All rail catering is expensive and, with the exception of restaurant cars, of poor quality by French standards (it’s better to take your own ‘picnic’). On TGV and Corail trains, first-class passengers can order a tray meal at their seat, which should be done when making your booking. Some Corail services provide a Grill-Express and/or self-service restaurant and inter-city trains have a mobile drinks and snacks service ( minibar) at your seat.

Toilets: There are toilets on inter-city trains. If you accidentally drop something down one, be careful how you try to retrieve it. A man who dropped his wallet down a TGV toilet got his hand trapped when he tried to recover it!

Telephones: Public telephones are available on TGVs and permit both domestic and international calls with a télécarte. There are three telephones on each TGV: one in first class, one in second class and one in the bar. The use of mobile phones isn’t allowed on most trains and there are signs indicating this, although many people ignore them.

Smoking: Since the beginning of 2006, smoking has been forbidden on all trains.

Stations

Platforms: Note that station platforms ( quais) aren’t always clearly numbered, so make sure you’re waiting at the correct one. Lines ( voies) often have different numbers from platforms and this can be confusing. TGV platforms have a yellow line marked on the surface, outside which passengers must stand for safety. At smaller stations you may need to cross the track to exit the station; if so, you must be very careful! If you’re seeing someone off at a main station, you must sometimes purchase a platform ticket, although it’s unlikely that anyone will check that you have one.

Restaurants & Bars: Most railway stations have a restaurant in or near them and the main stations in Paris have a choice of restaurants, brasseries and snack bars, most serving good food at a reasonable price. Some, such as the Gare de Lyon restaurant, are famous for their cuisine. Station restaurants in small towns are often well patronised by locals, which is always a good sign. Snacks and drinks at station cafés and bars can be expensive and poor quality. Some main railway stations provide toilets, washing facilities, including hair dryers and showers, and some provide nappy/diaper-changing rooms. There are photocopiers and instant passport photograph machines at most inter-city and international railway stations. At main stations in Lyon, Marseille and Paris (Gare de Lyon) there are kiosks where you can hire portable DVD players and discs (a service known ‘ Cinétrain’).

Shops: In a drive to increase revenue, the SNCF plans to create shopping centres in its 50 or so main stations; a 3,000m2 precinct in Paris’ Gare du Nord station was the first to open, in November 2002.

Luggage: Luggage offices ( consigne) are provided at most stations, where you’re charged around €5 per item (inlcuding bicycles and wheelchairs) for 24 hours. There are also luggage lockers ( consigne automatique) of various sizes, for which you must have the exact change; items may be left for up to 72 hours. Note that luggage lockers may be unavailable if there’s a ‘security alert’. Luggage trolleys are available free at main stations, although you need a €1 coin, which is refunded when the trolley is returned to a storage location (as in supermarkets). However, some stations have temporarily suspended luggage storage facilities because of stricter security measures. Porters are available at most main stations and charge around €1 per bag. People who are unable to carry their bags may request assistance from the reception desk ( accueil) at any main station.

The SNCF doesn’t accept responsibility for lost luggage or luggage stolen from lockers, unless you can prove that there was negligence on its part or that the locker was faulty; even then the compensation is likely to be derisory. However, you can register ( enregistrer) your luggage (including skis) for a fee, in which case you’re entitled to compensation according to the weight of your luggage. You must inspect your luggage when you collect it and make a claim by registered post within three days. The Service Bagages à Domicile leaflet, available at station information desks, gives full information and current charges (08 25 84 58 45).

Parking & Car Rental: Car parks are often provided close to railway stations, where long-term parking costs around €10 for the first 24 hours, reducing thereafter. Monthly parking tickets cost from around €70. You can rent an Avis car from around 200 main railway stations and leave it at any other station which operates the same service. Cars can be booked at the same time as your train ticket.

Bicycles: Bicycles can be hired from many stations and transported on trains. The SNCF publishes a brochure, Guide Train + Vélo.

Tickets

Tickets ( billet) can be purchased by telephone (08 92 35 35 35) and internet (www.voyages-sncf.com ), at station ticket offices, rail travel centres and appointed travel agents and via ticket machines ( billetterie automatique). A ticket must be purchased and validated before boarding a train.

Single tickets are aller simple and return tickets aller-retour. All tickets are valid for two months. There are two classes on most trains: first class ( première classe) and second class ( deuxième classe), with the exception of TEE and TEN international trains, which are first class only. At major stations staff may speak English or other languages, e.g. German, Italian or Spanish.

Tariffs

There are two tariffs ( tarif), depending on the day and the departure time of a journey:

  • Off-peak ( tarif bleu) Usually from 10.00 on Mondays to 15.00 on Fridays, 08.00 on Saturdays to 15.00 on Sundays and 20.00 on Sundays to 06.00 on Mondays.
  • Peak ( tarif blanc) The intervening periods, and on a few special days and public holidays.

The relevant period is indicated on timetables. A daily travel calendar ( Calendrier Voyageurs) is published by the SNCF and is available free at stations; it’s updated every six months. Fares are determined by the tariff applicable at the start of a journey, e.g. a journey that starts in the off-peak period and runs into the peak period is charged at the reduced (‘blue’) tariff. If you’re discovered travelling in a peak (‘white’) period with a ticket that only entitles you to travel off peak, you must pay the higher fare and a fine. Various discounts are available. The above tariff periods don’t apply to TGVs.

Discounts

Season tickets and special discount tickets are available for various types of traveller, including those listed below. The SNCF has a complicated fare structure and you should check to ensure that you pay the lowest possible fare.

Senior Citizens: Those who are over 60 (or as the French delicately put it, those of le troisième âge) can buy a Carte Senior, which costs €50 and provides a 50 per cent reduction in off-peak periods and a 25 per cent reduction in peak periods. There’s also a 25 per cent reduction on international journeys to 27 European countries, and the card can be used on the national railway networks of several European countries. The Carte Senior is valid on all trains except regional trains in Paris and can be purchased from SNCF offices abroad as well as in France.

Carte Senior holders are also entitled to discounts of up to 50 per cent on entertainment and museum fees and other travel discounts. Discounts are often listed in entertainment publications such as Pariscope. Even without a card, those over 60 are entitled to a 25 per cent reduction on all journeys starting in an off-peak period (known as the tarif découverte senior).

Children: Children under four who don’t require a separate seat travel free and children aged from 4 to 11 travel for half-fare. Children under four who do require a separate seat travel for a standard charge of €8 (known as the Forfait Bambin), one way only, which includes any booking fee. The same charge applies to first and second class. Children and youths aged from 12 to 25 can save 20 or 50 per cent (depending on the tariff period) with a card called La Carte 12-25. Children aged from 4 to 14 can travel in the care of a Jeune Voyageur Service ( JVS) host on selected routes for an additional fee of €39. For further information see the booklet, Votre Enfant Voyage en Train or Guide Service Jeune Voyageur.

Children under 12 can buy a Carte Enfant + (€65), which is valid for a year and entitles the holder and up to three other people (one of whom must be an adult) to travel at a 50 per cent reduction during off-peak periods and at a 25 per cent discount during peak periods. It also permits a family dog or cat to travel free. A Carte Enfant + doesn’t include travel on Parisian suburban railways.

Students & Apprentices: Students and apprentices aged up to 21 and 23 respectively can purchase weekly or monthly discount cards for all trains except TGVs (for which a special monthly pass is available). La Carte 12–25 provides a 50 per cent reduction in off-peak periods and 25 per cent off peak-time journeys. It’s valid for one year and costs €49. There’s also Tarif Découverte 12–25 entitling youths to a 25 per cent reduction on journeys started in an off-peak period.

Families: Parents with three or more children aged under 18 can purchase a family card ( Carte Famille Nombreuse), which costs €18, is valid for three years and entitles holders to discounts on all rail fares, whether travelling independently or as a family. Discounts start at 30 per cent for a family with three children and rise to 75 per cent for families with six or more children. The Carte Famille Nombreuse is available only to French residents, as it’s a social service subsidised by the French government. Cards, which take up to ten days to obtain, can be applied for at SNCF stations town halls and family benefit offices, where you must present identification for both parents (including national identity cards if appropriate), birth certificates or copies of your livret de famille or equivalent for each child, and a photograph of each family member.

Couples: Any two adults travelling together have two options for reduced-price rail travel. The first, Découverte à Deux, provides a 25 per cent reduction on all first or second-class travel on journeys starting in an off-peak period. The second, Découverte Séjour, gives a 25 per cent reduction on return journeys of less than 200km (124mi) which include a Saturday night stay.

Groups: Groups of ten or more people of any age travelling together are entitled to discounts of varying amounts. Information is provided at SNCF stations. In all groups, children aged 4 to 11 pay half the reduced fare.

Commuters: Commuters can obtain a season ticket called Modulopass valid for 6 or 12 months, allowing a 50 per cent reduction. An annual season ticket can be paid for in monthly instalments. Weekly ( hebdomadaire) and monthly ( mensuel) commuter tickets are also available in all regions. The cost varies according to whether you want a ticket between two particular stations ( trajets domicile-travail) or a ‘go-anywhere’ card ( carte de libre circulation). You must provide a passport photograph and present your passport or carte de séjour. Those who live more than 75km (47mi) from their place of work may be entitled to an abonnement de travail, valid for a week or a month at a time. You will need confirmation from your employer that you travel more than this distance daily.

Disabled: Disabled passengers are entitled to a range of reductions, depending on the extent of their disability. In certain cases, a person accompanying a disabled person is entitled to travel free. Information is provided in the SNCF booklet Guide Pratique du Voyaguer à Mobilité Réduite.

Other Discounts: Other reductions available include the following:

  • Holiday Tickets You can buy a holiday ticket ( billet séjour) allowing a 25 per cent reduction on a single, return or circular journey of over 1,000km (620mi) or an annual holiday ticket ( billet de congé annuel) allowing a one-time 25 per cent reduction on a single or return ticket for a journey over 200km (124mi). Both tickets are valid for two months and journeys must start during an off-peak period and there must be a Sunday between the outward and return journeys. An annual holiday ticket application should be endorsed by your employer.
  • Advance Purchase Tickets Découverte J8 and Découverte J30 tickets entitle you to fare reductions by paying for your ticket 8 or 30 days in advance. Tickets are available only for the train reserved, and refunds are possible only up to four days before travel. Fares include ordinary seats ( place assise) and ‘beds’ ( place couchée) on overnight trains.

Note that some of the tickets described above are offered by regional transport authorities and may be available in certain areas only. Further details are available from the information or ticket office at any railway station. The SNCF booklet, Le Guide du Voyageur, available from main stations, provides invaluable information.

Pets

You must buy a half-fare second-class ticket for a pet if it weighs over 6kg; it’s also valid in first class. If a pet is transported in a bag or basket no bigger than 45cm x 30cm x 25cm, the single fare is €5.10, irrespective of distance. Dogs must be muzzled. Holders of a Carte Enfant + are entitled to take a dog or cat with them free.

Booking

Seats can be reserved on most trains (a nominal booking fee is included in the ticket price) and must be reserved on TGVs. The fee for a TGV booking varies with the time and day of the week. However, you can travel on the TGV following or preceding the one you booked without changing your ticket. When reserving a seat you can choose first or second class, smoking ( fumeurs) or non-smoking ( non-fumeurs) – in second class only – and a window ( fenêtre) or corridor ( couloir) seat. All TGV tickets include a seat number. Bookings can be made up to two months before departure.

Seats can be reserved via telephone (08 92 35 35 35) and both reserved and paid for online (http://www.voyages-sncf.com). Seats can also be reserved via automatic ticket machines (see below). Eurostar bookings can be made by phone in English (08 92 35 35 39). At main stations, bookings may need to be made at a particular window (marked ‘ Locations’) and there may be a separate window for information (‘ Renseignements’) . Tickets for seats that aren’t paid for in advance must be collected from an SNCF station within 48 hours.

Ticket Machines: Tickets can be purchased from ticket machines ( billetterie automatique) at SNCF stations (the French love ticket machines and using them is usually preferable to queueing). There are dedicated machines ( billetterie automatique grandes lignes) for main line tickets, e.g. a TGV. Machines have touch-sensitive screens and some can be set to operate in various languages by pressing the appropriate flag symbol, e.g. the Union Jack for English (Americans must defer to the British in this rare instance). Payment can be made in cash, although this is now mainly reserved for local journey ticket machines ( billetterie automatique lignes régionales), which sometimes accept only coins. Tickets costing up to €760 can be paid for with a credit or debit card, which you insert in the machine when requested. Some grandes lignes machines accept only cards.

Ticket Validation: With the exception of tickets purchased outside France and passes already marked with a validity date, all tickets are valid for several days and therefore must be date stamped in a special machine ( composteur) before boarding a train. This includes booked TGV tickets (called ‘ Resa’) and the return ticket of a day return. Stamping machines have a sign ‘ COMPOSTEZ VOTRE BILLET’ and are mounted on pillars at the entrance to platforms ( accès aux quais); the SNCF is in the process of replacing existing orange machines, which often don’t work, with new blue ones in an effort to reduce ticket fraud. Insert one end of your ticket in the machine face up and a code number is stamped on the reverse (if you don’t hear a satisfying ‘chonk’ or the stamp is illegible, try again).

If you break a journey and continue it the same day, your ticket remains valid. However, if you break a journey overnight (or longer), you must re-stamp your ticket before continuing your journey. If you validate your ticket and then miss your train, and there are no more trains that day or you decide not to travel, you must go to the ticket office and have your ticket ‘un-validated’.

There are ticket inspectors (who normally operate in threes) on most French trains, and failure to validate your ticket will result in a fine, calculated as follows:

  • If you inform a ticket inspector on the train before he approaches you that you were unable to buy or stamp your ticket for reasons beyond your control, e.g. the ticket office was closed or the composteur was out of order, you will be charged the normal ticket price plus €3 for a journey up to 75km (47mi) or the normal ticket price plus €9 for a journey over 75km (47mi).
  • If a ticket inspector ‘catches’ you without a validated ticket, the fine is the normal ticket price plus €9 (if you pay on the spot) or €31 (if you wish to pay later) if you bought the ticket that day, or the normal ticket price plus €18 (on the spot) or €40 (later) if you bought the ticket at an earlier date.
  • If your ticket is invalid for any other reason, you can be fined €3 on top of the ticket price.
  • If you have an invalid ticket in the Ile-de-France region, the penalties are €20 on the spot or €42 later whatever the circumstances.

If you argue with a ticket inspector, he’s entitled to increase the penalty to over €120. If you’re found guilty of fraud (e.g. you’ve scratched off the date on your ticket or hide in a toilet), you can be fined €130, and persistent offenders face fines of up to €7,500 and six months in prison. It’s illegal to board a train without a ticket, even if you’re merely seeing someone off. There are (controversial) plans to replace ticket inspectors on certain trains with a computerised ticket checking system called Equipment Agent Seul ( EAS).

Refunds: If you buy a ticket for a specific date and seat and then decide not to use it, you can obtain a 100 per cent refund from any SNCF ticket office before and up to an hour after the scheduled time of departure. Thereafter (up to 60 days) a 10 per cent charge is levied on your ticket price, i.e. you obtain a 90 per cent refund. For all unreserved tickets a 10 per cent refund charge is levied, but you must make your claim within the overall validity period printed on the ticket. No refund is possible for a ticket costing €4.50 or less.

The refund charge isn’t levied if the service you planned to use didn’t run, although you must have written evidence from a member of the station staff. If a TGV is over 30 minutes late, the SNCF will refund 30 per cent of the ticket price ( engagement régularité). ( TGV drivers have their bonus reduced if a train is late without good reason.) Other trains must be at least an hour late before 30 per cent of the ticket price is refunded. These refunds apply to journeys of at least 100km (62mi) and don’t apply if a delay, due to maintenance or repair work for example, has previously been announced.

Finding Your Seat

To find your carriage, check the number on your ticket against the notice board showing the layout of trains ( Composition des Trains) or the number on the outside of carriages. TGV carriage numbers are marked on the platform surface and displayed next to doors. Seat numbers are marked on tickets (e.g. ‘ VOIT 18: 32’ = carriage 18, seat number 32) and displayed on the top of seats.

Night Trains

A range of sleeping accommodation is provided on night trains, depending on your budget and the size of your party, as detailed below. You should beware of thieves and armed robbers on overnight trains, especially those running along the Mediterranean coast and across the Italian border. After a spate of robberies a number of years ago security locks were fitted to sleeping compartments; however, you should still take care before opening the door, as crooks sometimes pose as attendants. There are dedicated compartments for women travelling alone. Bookings can be made at SNCF offices, travel agencies and motoring organisations abroad, and at railway stations, rail travel centres and SNCF-appointed travel agencies in France.

There are the following types of ‘accommodation’ on night trains:

  • Reclining Seat – You can (try to) sleep on a reclining seat ( siège inclinable); there’s no charge, but seats must be reserved.
  • CouchettesCouchettes ( places couchées) are provided in four-berth compartments in first class and in six-berth compartments in second class, for which there’s a booking fee of between €15 and €17.50 depending on the type of train. Although a sleeping-bag sheet, pillow and blankets are provided, passengers don’t usually undress, as compartments aren’t segregated according to sex. Washrooms and toilets are provided at the ends of carriages. Couchettes are non-smoking, although smoking is permitted in corridors.
  • Sleepers – Sleepers ( voiture-lits) provide sleeping accommodation for one to three people with a proper bed and private washing facilities. Single and double sleepers are provided in first class, and double and triple sleepers in second class. Each sleeper carriage has an attendant, who serves snacks and drinks. Trains display the TEN ( Trans Euro Nuit) emblem on carriages when they cross borders. Sleepers cost around €100.

Motorail

Motorail is a European network of special trains (known as auto-trains), generally running overnight, carrying passengers and their cars or motorbikes over distances of up to 1,500km (900mi). Caravans cannot be taken on Motorail trains, and you’re recommended not to fit roof racks or roof boxes, as they may not be allowed (there’s no hard and fast rule!), but SUVs and ‘people carriers’ are now admitted (for a £50 surcharge). The SNCF provides an extensive motorail network of some 130 routes linking most regions of France. The principal Motorail services from the UK operate from Calais and Dieppe to Avignon, Biarritz, Bordeaux, Brive-la-Gaillarde, Narbonne, Nice and Toulouse. Trains don’t run every day and on most routes operate during peak months only (e.g. summer and Christmas holidays).

A wide range of sleeping accommodation is available. Breakfast is included in the price and is served in the station buffet on arrival at your destination, although there are interminable queues and it’s usually more convenient to buy breakfast at a local café. Check your car carefully for damage before driving off, particularly the exhaust pipe, which can be dented or broken on ramps. Any damage must be reported before leaving the station. Motorail journeys are expensive (e.g. a minimum of GB£230 for a family to travel from London to Brive-la-Gaillarde one way) and it’s cheaper for most people to drive, although it’s usually slower and not as relaxing (trains are now equipped with a ‘bar car’!). The main advantage of Motorail is that you travel overnight and (with luck) arrive feeling refreshed after a good night’s sleep. Note that there’s a big difference between peak and off-peak fares.

A comprehensive timetable ( Guide Trains Autos et Motos Accompagnées) is published for bookings made through a railway station or travel agent in France, containing routes, tariffs, general information and access maps for motorail stations. Passengers in the UK can obtain a brochure, Motorail for Motorists – the Expressway into Europe. Further information can be found on the French Motorail website ( http://www.raileurope.co.uk/frenchmotorail) or by calling UK 0870-241 5415.

Information & Timetables

All SNCF rail enquiries are now centralised on a premium-rate telephone number (3635 – press 1 for details of delays or cancellations, 2 for recorded timetable information or 3 to speak to someone). The SNCF head office is at 10 place Budapest, 75009 Paris (01 53 25 60 00, www.sncf.com ) and it has offices in many countries, including the UK (French Travel, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0BA, 0870-241 4243 or 0870-584 8848 for European tickets, www.raileurope.co.uk ). Rail information can also be found on the SNCF website (www.voyages-sncf.com ).

The SNCF publishes a free quarterly magazine in some countries, e.g. Top Rail in the UK, plus a wealth of free brochures and booklets detailing its services, including Le Guide du Voyageur, available from French stations. It also organises hotel accommodation, bus and coach services, boat cruises and package holidays. The SNCF has teamed up with Expedia, one of America’s largest online travel agencies, to offer flights, car hire, package holidays and other services (www.voyages-sncf.com ).

At major stations, arrivals ( arrivées) and departures ( départs) are shown on large electronic boards. When you buy a rail ticket with a reserved seat, e.g. for a TGV, the departure time is printed on your ticket.

French timetables ( horaire) are usually accurate, particularly rail timetables for TGV and other fast trains. Rail timetables are published in national, regional and local versions, and also for individual routes or lines. (Note that some routes have separate timetables for each direction!)

The SNCF also publishes three regional timetables: for the Nord Est, Atlantique and Sud Est et Corse. There are separate timetables and guides ( Horaires et Guide Pratique) for TGV routes. Pocket timetables are published for main lines, and a Lignes Affaires timetable is published containing times for a selection of the most popular trains linking major centres from Mondays to Fridays. In most regions, a Guide Régional des Transports is available from local railway and bus stations. Rail timetables are updated twice a year: around 1st June and 24th September (exact dates vary annually).

Many rail services operate only from Mondays to Saturdays ( semaine) and not on Sundays and holidays ( dimanches et fêtes) and some run at different times on different days of the week. Before planning a trip, check that your planned travel dates aren’t ‘special days’ ( jour particulier) such as a public holiday, when there are usually restricted services – unless you have no option.

If your train is late and you want to find out what has happened to it, you can call 08 91 70 50 00.

This article is an extract from Living and working in France. Click here to get a copy now.

Does this article help?

Do you have any comments, updates or questions on this topic? Ask them here: