If you want to see the heart of France and its countryside, traveling by train is the wisest and most comfortable option. Like all things French, even trains here are super fast and a class apart with state-of-the-art facilities and luxury. The trains in the country are ideal for backpackers who want to get a flavor of the world’s most romantic country.
France is the dream destination for many people around the world, who are in love with art, sculpture, and European culture. If you are planning to travel across France to get soaked in the spirit of the country, train travel is an ideal option, as it not only offers comfort, but also a splendid view of French countryside and its cities.
The French rail network has an illustrious history dating back to the 19th century. The first railway track in France opened up in 1832 but it was after a law legitimizing railways was passed in 1842, that the French rail network really took off.
The first lines branched out of the capital of France, Paris, to connect all the major cities of the time. Progress was slow as a lot of factors like wars and the preference for a water transport system took precedence. In 1910, kissing was prohibited on French trains as it caused delays!
As time went on, a combined partnership of government initiative at large and private enterprises took the construction of the rail network forward, resulting in one of the thickest networks in Europe by 1914, with a range of 60,000 km. Most of these lines were of the narrow gauge type.
After the two world wars, road line development affected the railways a lot and the progress slowed down. Development was furthered, thanks to nationalization of the network by the socialist government and establishment of a central authority called Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Francais (SNCF) (French National railway). The development since then has resulted in closing of the narrow gauge lines and electrification of the routes. The network has 32,000 km of route under its control. Out of all this, 1,800 km is a high-velocity line and 14,500 km is fully electrified.
Presently, about 14,000 trains run across the length and breadth of the ‘Hexagon’ shaped land of France. This includes the fleet of TGV(‘Train à Grande Vitesse‘) meaning high-speed trains. They connect all the major city centers of France, zooming past at speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour.
The Channel Tunnel
One of the modern seven wonders of the world is the Channel Tunnel undersea rail line link that connects France with England. A technological wonder of the 20th century, it is 31.4 miles long and passes from beneath the English channel connecting Coquelles, close to Calais in Northern France with Folkestone, Kent in England. Conveyance through the tunnel is carried by the Eurostar high-speed trains.
In recent years, there have been a few fire problems in the tunnel but the authorities are constantly working to make the route safer. So if you want to travel from France to England, you have plenty of choices. You could fly over the sea, travel by ferry on the sea, or you can go below the sea by the Chunnel (short for Channel + tunnel)!
Booking Tickets, Passes, and Travel
If you want to travel by train, in France, you have a variety of options available like the TGV (High Speed), the Trans-Europe trains that connect France with the neighboring countries, and the ‘Corail’ Trains which are low speed compared to TGV but connect Paris with all the major destinations.
It is a good practice to carry a rail timetable booklet with you that lists all the train timings across France. It is available at all the major train stations. It’s better to book tickets in advance, if you want a sleeper berth or if you need a first-class ticket. Ticket machines are available on all the platforms, where you need to insert your ticket before boarding or else you may be considered a stowaway. Most of the trains provide a restaurant wagon facility, which serves multiple cuisines.
The first option, TGV is the premiere and fastest network headquartered in Paris, connecting 150 cities across France with online booking facilities. It holds the rare record, of having the fastest speed record of 320 mph and also the fastest average pace record for passenger trains in the world. Booking facility is available up to 60 days in advance. It has a strict no-smoking policy and is speedier than air travel in this country. In November, 2003, TGV clocked its 1 billionth passenger and is second in race to Japan’s ‘Shinkansen’ which completed a tally of 5 billion passengers in 2000.
The second option is the Trans-European train network called Eurail or France rail and Eurostar. They offer a pass facility that allows you to travel throughout Europe, as well as inland France destinations on its route at much cheaper prices. A single country pass costs around USD 50 and offers you up to 8 days of travel in a month in every country. The global pass costs somewhere around USD 500 giving you access to 21 countries with varying types of travel packages. It’s called the ‘Eurail Global Pass’ which is available through online booking. The pass is preferred by people who are on a tour to Europe as it connects almost all the major capitals and cities and therefore is a hassle free travel solution, cheaper than air travel across Europe.
The third option is the Corail carriage, predecessor of the TGV, which in spite of slowly being phased out, still plies on routes not connected by TGV. They are medium speed trains but are very comfortable for travel.
The major train routes are Paris – Nice via Lyon, Paris-Luxembourg, Paris-Brussels, and almost all combination-routes connecting the major cities of Europe are available. For international travel across Europe, make sure you have your passports and the relevant visas required, in place. Trains in France are your portals to Europe exploration. Bon Voyage!