Travel by Rail in France – A Guide
France has an enviable choice of local, national and international railway services. If you want to understand the best way to get around Paris or were wondering how quickly you can get to the lavender fields of Provence or vineyards of Bordeaux – this guide is for you !
France’s state owned railway company is called the Société Nationale des Chemin de Fer France – “SNCF”. It operates most of the train services operating in France including the TGV the world famous high speed rail network . SNCF operates across France on a network of nearly 20,000 miles of track with Paris as a central hub. There are over a 1,000 miles of high speed tracks and 9,000 miles are electrified.
In France SNCF operates a range of rail service at both a national and regional level. SNCF also has co-operative ventures offering rail services connecting major French cities with other European destinations.
France has an extensive range of cross country and inter city rail services
Rail stations in Paris offer a range of inter-city, TGV and regional services
TGV – High Speed Travel
SNCF currently operates two high speed services within France. The TGV and the iDTVG.
The TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse or high speed train) is France’s world famous high speed rail service operated by SNCF. Originally developed in the early 1970s the TGV runs on specific routes (LGV – Ligne à Grand Vitesse ) with the first being Paris-Lyon which opened in 1981. The TGV network centered on Paris has expanded to connect main cities across France and interconnects with other high speed lines across Europe such as the Eurostar to London.
The iDTGV is a low cost service operating to the south of France which SNCF have announced will be withdrawn from the end of 2017.
How Fast is the TGV ?
The TGV holds the world speed record for conventional passenger trains. Under test conditions a TGV train specially prepared for a speed trial reached 357.2mph on an extended test run along the LGV-EST from Strasbourg. The normal maximum operating speeds of the TGV is usually closer to 200mph with some minor variation due to route but it’s always the TGV so expect it to be fast and to get you to your destination faster than any other train !
The distinctive shape of the high speed TGV trains gives some indication of the speed they travel
Where Does it Go ?
The first TGV service was between Paris and Lyon in southern France. The network has grown in all directions and now includes the following lines and destinations
If want to travel to the south of France you will follow the route of the first TGV line – the LGV-Sud Est. This route leaves Paris from the Gare de Lyon and takes you to Lyon where it connects to the newer LGV-Rhône-Alpes. This then takes passengers south of Lyon and onto another high speed line, the LGV-Méditeranée. This final section opened in 2001 connects the TGV trains southbound from Paris with the regions of Provence-Alpes, the Côte d’Azur and Languedoc-Roussillon. Stations on this route include Avignon, Marseille, Toulon, Cannes, Nice and even Monaco (limited service)
Opening in 1989 the LGV-Atlantique route takes travellers from Paris (Gare Montparnasse) westwards towards the Atlantic coast splitting into two branches. The northern route section goes to Le Mans, the southern section takes travellers to Tours. The northern route was extended in 2017 with the opening of the LGV Bretagne-Pays de Loire and the southern route by the LGV Sud Europe Atlantique. Locations served by these routes include Rennes and Nante in the Brittany region, Bordeaux and La Rochelle in the Bordeaux region and Biarritz and Toulouse in south-western France.
TGV services use the LGV-Nord route which leaves from the Gare du Nord in Paris and connects the Paris area to the Belgian border at Lille. TGV destinations on this line include Picardie, Arras, Lille and Calais. The line is also used for the Eurostar services to Lille and London and Thalys services to Belgium and Holland.
This TGV service using the LGV-Est route originates at Gare de L’Est in Paris and connects Paris with eastern France and Strasbourg. Other cities served include Nancy and Metz. This line is notable for being able to carry German high speed trains into the heart of Paris
A TGV streaks across the French countryside
The TGV network serves a range of destination across France including Nice and Cote d’Azur
What Are the Trains Like ?
There are a number of different types of TGV trains all with their very distinctive nose designed for high speed operation. They operate in fixed sets of power cars front and back and a carriage set in the middle which are rarely uncoupled. This makes the train more rigid and stronger in the unlikely event of a derailment.
What Ticket Options are There ?
TGV offer three ticket classes.
Standard Class – straightforward, friendly and comfortable travel for every type of traveller, including families. Enjoy the bright carriages, practical services and efficient customer service. On TGV Est routes there is a payable WiFi service available to all customers.
First Class – Better seats and power points
TGV Pro Business – Extra comfortable seats, power points , business lounge at main stations, free newspapers and drinks
The French rail network offers a number of high speed rail connections to other parts of Europe
United Kingdom – Eurostar
Eurostar is a high speed rail service which connects runs a regular schedule between London and Paris and London and Brussels. We have a more detailed guide to the London-Paris Eurostar service.
Switzerland – TGV Lyria
TGV Lyria is partnership between SNCF and SBB the Swiss railway company. It operates services high speed rail services between France and Switzerland. Destinations served from Paris include Geneva, Lausanne, Zurich and Neuchatel, Basel and Bern and leave from the Gare de Lyon.
Belgium, Holland and Germany – Thalys
Thalys is a joint venture with state railway companies of France, Belgium and Germany. It operates a range of high speed rail services linking a number of important centers in Northern Europe. For passengers starting in Paris (Gare du Nord) Thalys serves a range of destination in the north and north east. In Belgium these include Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp as well as Brussels. In Holland these include Rotterdam, Schiphol and Amsterdam. German destinations include Aachen, Düsseldorf, Essen, Cologne and Dortmund.
Italy – TGV Italy
The TGV network now includes high speed services from Paris (Gare de Lyon) to Turin and Milan
Spain – TGV Spain
Travelling south from Paris the TGV now offers a direct service to selected Spanish destinations. These include Girona, Barcelona and Madrid.
TGV services connect with other European high speed rail services such as Thalys which takes passengers to Belgium, Holland and Germany
High speed networks make visiting other European cities a real possibility for the enthusiastic traveller. This is the Atomium in Brussels.
“When preparing to travel, lay out all of your clothes and all of your money.
Then take half the clothes and twice the money.”
SNCF – Intercités
This is the standard inter-city (oddly enough) rail service across France. Unlike the TGV Intercités is not so Paris centric. Although it has connections from Paris to the cities and towns of France there are a wide network of connections between regional centers such Bordeaux to Lyon. Intercités services are run by SNCF on medium or long distance routes and include the former branded services Teoz and Corail.
Where Does Intercités Go ?
It currently serves 367 stations across France so you should be able to get pretty close to your ultimate destination. Needless to say it also interconnects with the TGV.
What Are the Trains Like ?
The kind of the train you will get varies according to route and because inevitably rolling stock gets upgraded or refurbished over time. On some trains half the seats face one way, the rest the other way. As the trains gets turned during service you can’t book front or rear facing seats in advance. This is not always true – like I said it depends on the line so check when booking if you can book a specific seat or the direction of travel. Please note, not all services offer pre-booking of seats either. The former Teoz trains are fast , air conditioned and require a reservation but be aware that the majority of Intercite services do not require a reservation. You buy your ticket and get on.
What Ticket Options are There ?
Intercités offer two standard fare classes
First Class – Seating is more spacious with three seats across the aisle and reclining leather seats on former Teoz routes
Second Class – Airline style seating facing in both directions of travel with four seats across the aisle
Inter-Cite trains links all the major towns and cities of France not linked by the TGV network
SNCF – TER Regional Services
SNCF use the brand name TER (Transport Express Regional) for local, regional rail networks that operate in France. SNCF working with regional councils agree on the provision of a certain level of train service in any specific region. Local councils bear the cost although it is heavily subsidised by the state.
There are 20 French regions with rail network agreements with SNCF.
What Are the Trains Like ?
TER trains consist of single or multiple-unit diesel, electric or dual-mode rail cars, as well as some Corail carriages previously used on intercity routes.
What Ticket Options Are There ?
Purchase tickets for TER trains at the local SNCF station. Special ticket offers are available for regular travellers and students. These vary according to the specific region.
TER Scenic Routes
TER Touring Trains are a unique series of rail routes operated by TER . There are 10 regional lines—some open all year round, others only in season. Just a couple of examples should wet your appetite.
The Côte Bleue train takes you past 32 kilometres of coastline from Marseille to Miramas–home to the famous Mediterranean inlets called calanques. At each stop, the beach is just steps away. It’s an unforgettable way to visit this protected area with its dazzling turquoise waters.
Personally I would really like to try the Mont-Blanc Express. An 80-minute journey into the heart of the Mont Blanc region with views of the Alps, Mont Blanc of course and being a rail nut I quite like the idea of single track line with a 9% gradient. That is going to be fun.
SNCF – Transilien
Transilien is the SNCF brand name for the rail services which operate across the Île-de-France region of France which of course includes the greater Paris area at it’s center. It comprises 13 different rail lines and connects with the Paris Metro and RER. It carries 3 million commuters into Paris everyday and not a few tourists and visitors to such places as the airports and attractions such as Versailles.
There are five RER lines and eight SNCF-Transilien train services which cover Paris and the wider Île-de-France region
- Transilien Network Map (PDF opens in new tab)
- Transilien Network Map – Accessible Stations (PDF opens in new tab)
There are three types of tickets which are valid on Transilien services
The T+ ticket is valid in Paris only. This is the standard Metro ticket bought individually or as a Carnet of ten tickets. Valid on all Metro and rail services within Paris. Just be aware that they’re not valid all the way to places outside Paris like Versailles, Disneyland Paris or the airports.
Origin-Destination tickets are valid for one journey across the network but can include Metro as well as rail segments.You can buy the ticket in advance but once validated you have a two hour time window to complete your journey.
The Mobilis Pass is a one day pass valid from midnight to midnight on the day of use not 24hrs from first validation. Price varies according to how many of the Transilien zones you want to travel in. You can buy it in advance. You need to write your name and the date on the tickets on the day you actually use it. It’s not transferable. The clock will start running once you validate it in a ticket machine. Please note you can’t use this to get to the Roissy Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports. If this is important get a Paris Visite Card (see our ticket guide for more information on this)
Low Cost Travel – Ouigo
Ouigo is a wholly owned but independently operated subsidiary of SNCF and was launched in 2013. It is run just like a budget airline with an emphasis on pared down services at much lower cost than conventional rail networks.Are you a bit wary of budget airlines ? Low cost fares can often rack up lots of extra fees. Where has Ouigo cut corners ?
- You can only book tickets online or via the mobile app. They go on sale 9 months prior to the travel date are upto 4 hours before departure
- You print your ticket at home or use a mobile ticket on your cell phone.
- Ouigo uses modified double decker TGV trains which are all second class seating with either 2+2 or 3+1 across the aisle and there is no buffet car. This means they can seat more per train and you’ll have to bring your own food and drinks !
- Luggage allowance is limited unless you want to pay for extra bags (€5 at booking time , €10 ahead of the trip , €20 at the station)
- Like the budget airlines, the trains don’t go to the “normal” stations. Be aware of that. In Paris for example it’s either the station at Marne-la-Vallee or one near Charles de Gaulle airport not the Gare du Nord. Both are outside Paris. Same goes for Lille (Tourcoing) and Lyon (St Exupery) so do check !
- Trying to get hold of anyone by phone is probably impossible – it’s all done online
Where Does it Go ?
Ouigo offers services from Paris to Lille in the North, Nantes in the West and Lyon, Montpellier and Marseille in the South
What are the trains like ?
Ouigo exclusively use the double decker version of the train used on the standard TGV service. They have removed the first class seating and the buffet car to increase overall capacity in every train. That said because they are still standard TGV trains they guarantee your seat will be as comfortable as a 2nd class TGV seat.
What Ticket Options Are There ?
Only one. Tickets are sold online at a range of prices based on demand so the longer ahead you book the cheaper the ticket . Tickets prices typically range from €10 to €85. Children under 12 on the day of travel pay a flat rate of €5 when accompanied by an adult. As with with budget airlines there are a range of potential extras including luggage, power sockets.
The OUIGO budget rail service is an attempt by SNCF to compete with the low cost airlines operating within France
It serves a limited number of destinations from Paris including the south of France and Atlantic coastal region
Inspired by France is a small family run business/blog . We have lived and worked in France at various times in our life and hope to spend a lot more time there in the future.
We love all things French ranging from film, music and literature to the simple pleasures of French cooking and the odd glass of wine. We want to share our love of France with other France fanatics !