High speed travel
Earlier this year, the French railway company SNCF broke another world speed record for electrical trains. A TGV train then reached a velocity almost 600 kilometres per hour on the new tracks connecting Paris to Germany. The French have a taste for prestigious projects and the TGV proudly features on the list of France`s favourite toys. A profitable toy though: a TGV connection with Paris is a guarantee for economical progress for all regions that are hooked up.
France has become a lot smaller since the TGV connection between Lyon and Paris was inaugurated in the 1980s. Paris-Lyon still takes five hours by car, but thanks to a speed of up to 320 km/h, France`s two biggest cities are separated by only two hours of train travelling. Moreover, the TGV network has been gradually expanded over recent years, facilitating access to all corners of the country ? and even beyond. It makes France the only country that is able to propose its inhabitants a viable alternative for cars and airplanes.
..laughs at the state of the British railway system
`France is laughing at the United Kingdom for its lousy rail connections`, says Pierre-Emmanuel (26, photo), `they have privatised their railway system into a giant mess, while we have modern infrastructure connecting all main cities. But yes, it still is a state-owned company so we continuously fear overpaying. And we have no choice but to accept that railway strikes occasionally bring the entire society to a standstill.`
As a result of the centralist set-up of the country, the majority of all road and train connections pass by Paris. Traveling to Paris by TGV is almost as convenient as traveling can be. An advantage that has not gone unnoticed by students and holiday makers, but to the same extent attracts business people. Traveling by train is by no means perceived as a `working class phenomenon`, as is often the case in Anglo-Saxon countries.
The contrary is true in France. TGV stands for speed, style and environmental consciousness. For long distance travels within France, traveling by car is quickly associated with expensive toll roads, expensive petrol, long drives and an increasing number of speed cameras. And that is even without taking into consideration the traffic jams that terrorise Paris every day.
Delphine (23) explains why people in France are so fond of train travels. `It`s not very complicated: trains are quicker than cars, cause less pollution and they are even less expensive`, she says. `Many people even organise their time so that they can work on the train, or read, or sleep or relax or have something to eat or drink, none of which are obvious activities in combination with driving a car. On top of that, there are frequent connections: up to a half hourly connection between Paris and Lyon, two cities that are nevertheless 500 kilometres away from one another. Last but not least, there have never been any big TGV accidents, while at the same time many people die on the French motorways every year.`
The choice between car and train seems to be a conscious one, proved by the fact that many people even combine the advantages of both. They may use the combined train/parking facilities or choose to have themselves deposited at the station by friends or family ? probably one of the main reasons why TGV departure are usually surrounded by many goodbye protocols. Improved public transportations in the main city further help people to make the most efficient use of the TGV. The recent introduction of le tramway in various regional capitals has led to lots of excitement about the renewed accessibility of city centres, and, as a result, railway stations.
Pay less, travel more
The SNCF has further tried very hard to involve the population in the TGV success. Discount arrangements have been designed to suit every traveler`s need: frequent travelers, young travelers, old travelers, handicapped travelers, group travelers, business travelers, early birds, package deals and many others. The best option is to become a train driver yourself. You will pay close to nothing for your train travels and the offer even extends to partners and children.
The train fare system perfectly responds to the French taste for equality for all, preferential treatment for each: if you don`t have any excuse to get a discount, you will pay the full price just like everybody else. Everybody else obviously refers to hardly anybody in this case. A conspiracy-minded visitor could easily take it for a way to squeeze extra money out of tourists. The French simply enjoy their personal preferential treatments and are indifferent to pretty much everything else.
Ce qui va pas
Adrien (24) starts laughing when I ask about the reliability of the TGV network. `Well, we have some strikes again this month and there have hardly been any trains for more than a week. Otherwise, trains are sometimes late but the overall performance is solid. However, if you want to travel between cities that are not along one and the same TGV line, you will probably have a hard time`, he says, `or if you have to change in Paris, where the different stations are at least 15 minutes away from each other.` The Interconnexion rail link has partially solved that problem, as it allows trains to pass around Paris rather than heading for the five downtown terminal stations.
The expansion of the TGV network goes hand in hand with the cancellation of many regular intercity lines and night trains. Amsterdam can no longer be reached by night train, and TGV has become the only option for international destinations like Cologne, Luxemburg, Geneva and Milan. The introduction of the TGV-Eurostar service may have shortened the trip between Paris and London drastically, it also caused cheaper alternatives like ferries or hovercrafts to abandon the market. Escaping the TGV fares between Paris and Brussels means exchanging a direct 1h30 trip for five hours of adventure with up to three transfers along the way.
Lack of competition
Nationally, similar problems start to arise. Bordeaux in the West and Lyon in the East are connected by only one daily intercity train. A quick view at the map would suggest that travelling via Paris is not a smart choice, but in many cases it is. Also, places that are not connected to the TGV network often have very few connections per day and their rolling stock is a laugh compared to the TGV. Like the TGV, regional transportations mostly serve to connect one city to its surroundings in a star shape network. Getting from one city to the next one is easy if it`s on the way to Paris and usually very difficult if you move away from the TGV axes.
Regional buses only marginally complement the rail system. With the exception of a few intercity buses, they only connect city centres to surrounding villages, usually only until the early evening. International buses serve countries all over Europe several times per week, but getting from one big city to another by bus is not an option in France. A lack of competition that may well be the main reason for the expensiveness of the TGV tickets.
Another disadvantage is that all TGVs require seat reservation and are non-exchangeable between trains. Missing a train means big trouble, especially if you were happy to enjoy one of the discount programs. Tickets may prove very expensive if they are not booked in advance. TGV travelling may be comfortable and quick, it does not allow for much spontaneity. Travelling ? l`impr?vu is not advisable. It`s expensive and if all seats in the train are taken, you simply have to wait for the next one, or another one or another one. It`s just like airplanes but, so far, with the refreshing absence of check-in procedures.
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