High-Speed Rail in France

TGV as our train departs the Gare de Paris-l'Est, 1 September 2014

TGV as our train departs the Gare de Paris-l’Est, 1 September 2014

Coming from the land of Amtrak – even in the Northeast Corridor, where at least intercity rail more or less exists – to ride the TGV in France was an absolute delight and an experience utterly unlike any I’ve ever had before in the United States. Rail is affordable, efficient, fast, and omnipresent. One leg of our journey required a bit of a detour; even then we rode four trains in six hours without a single hitch.

To begin with, the fares. Granted, we were booking all of our tickets about two months in advance, but even looking out that far from now, the cheapest Amtrak tickets from Washington Union Station to New York Penn (at a reasonable hour and not 3AM) are $52 each, one-way, for coach class. That’s about 40.

By comparison, we bought tickets from French rail operator SNCF for three separate trips: a day trip from Paris to Reims, one-way from Paris to Lyon, and one way from Lyon to Basel (as the first half of a long journey, but that’s a story for later). Here’s a chart comparing prices, time, and class (all one-way):

Origin Destination Distance (approx) Duration Average Speed Class Cost (EUR) Cost (USD)
Washington, DC New York, NY 225 mi 3:25 66mph Coach € 40 $52
Paris, FR Lyon, FR 288 mi 2:03 140mph First € 22.50 $29
Paris, FR Reims, FR 88 mi 0:48 110mph First € 19 $24
Lyon, FR Basel, CH (via Mulhouse, FR) 258 mi 3:07* 82mph Second € 50 $64
*Not including a 15 minute layover in Mulhouse

No contest there. You get more for your money – more speed, more comfort, more utility – in France. Even the last trip, to Basel, was hampered by the fact that for the last leg we had to connect to a regional service in Mulhouse. But somehow, the trains are faster and cheaper. Zoltána of NQRW has written about the phenomenon of European train pricing and scheduling, As she points out, advance booking comes with notable negatives; e.g., losing the flexibility of turn-up-and-go service, making long allowances for travel times, and the sunken cost of spending hours in a place (e.g., a train station) that you don’t need to be. As tourists, we didn’t have those issues, and even then, Amtrak requires the early booking with none of the amenities or speed that the TGV runs.

That speed alone counts for a lot. We were able to take a day trip to Reims, close to 100 miles away from Paris (by way of comparison, Richmond is 95 miles from DC and Philadelphia is 120), and arrive in less than an hour. Ditto for the return trip. Since the LGV Est opened in 2007, Reims is half the time it was from the capital, increasing the ability of its own residents to access jobs in Paris as well as the ability of tourists and Parisians alike to visit Reims. North American cities should take note of this, particularly for places with historical value but less density themselves (here I’m thinking less of intercity lines and more of commuter rail-oriented destinations like Fredericksburg outside DC and Concord near Boston).

Best of all, we got to see the train hit its top speed of 320 km/h thanks to the handy speedometers in the coaches.

First class isn’t quite so nice as it might sound. You have access to the same dining car as second class (the groups of first- and second-class carriages are separated by the dining car), but you do get reserved seating. The digital displays above each seat that indicate from where to where the seat is reserved are nothing short of miraculous, when compared with the punched tickets still used by Amtrak.

First Class on TGV

First Class on TGV

When you’ve got luggage to deal with, having an assigned seat is a godsend. And the views at 200mph from the upper deck are pretty nice, too.

As regards the various TGV stations, I could not have been more impressed. The Gare de l’Est, from where Reims-bound trains depart in Paris, is a lovely little station with good Metro connectivity and a very intuitive layout. Track access is easy and immediate – you walk right up to the train, like a normal human being, and unlike in Washington or New York or Boston where Amtrak continues to treat its riders like children. Platforms are level and as a terminal, are very easy to get to from one end of the station. (We did have a long walk from the far end of the platform when we returned but all things considered…)

The same is true for the Gare de Lyon, which is more expansive and a little less intuitive but which nevertheless has easy platform access. It had both the usual terminal-end access as well as underground access via ramp and stair to each track. The only downside was not knowing in advance which track the train would depart from, which led us to emerge from an underground entrance halfway down a platform, walk with bags back to the end of the platform, wait two minutes, and discover that the first platform was indeed the one our train was leaving from. Advance platform knowledge, like that offered by SBB and Deutsche Bahn, would be of great help here.

Our last trip, from Lyon in France to the tiny station of Goppenstein in Switzerland at one end of the Lötschberg Tunnel, was a bit more complicated. Because of the timing of any direct Lyon-Geneva trains, we had to take a circuitous route from Lyon to Mulhouse to Basel to Bern to Goppenstein. Only the first leg from Lyon was anything approaching high-speed; the rest were all fast but not especially so. Four trains in six hours, and a very tight connection at Basel (arrive 13:26; depart 13:31). But thanks to the efficiencies of European rail, not a single train was late and we made every single connection. And this is what we emerged from the tunnel to:

The Swiss trains also came with advance knowledge of the platform, so we were prepared for a dash at Basel up an escalator, over, and down another one to make our connection. But that was an exception; all other transfers were easy cross-platform ones. The wonders of scheduling!

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3 thoughts on “High-Speed Rail in France

  1. Amtrak does not use punched tickets anymore, and hasn’t for a couple of years now! The physical ticket that you get from the ticket machine or office is just a place to store the barcode, which is an index into the reservation database, which the conductor can access from his handy ticket-scanning PDA, from which he can also determine such useful things as the number of people getting on or off at any given stop and the number of empty seats expected on a segment. If they wanted to implement seat reservations, and put in those displays, they could, but what sense does it make doing that on 40 year old (!) cars that are going to be replaced soon anyways?

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    • Sorry, I don’t mean physical tickets, but rather those little slips that get placed up above you after your ticket has been checked.

      And I agree that it’s a waste to refit existing cars. But look at Acela trainsets, which are barely 15 years old. Missed opportunity there. Are they in the joint NEC/CAHSR procurement?

      I wouldn’t even say that having displays and reservations is a requirement, but it is a small touch that could go a long way (not to mention that reserved seating could alleviate much of the crush to board a train if Amtrak doesn’t change it’s ridiculous boarding procedures). And it potentially frees some of the dead time associated with advance booking of tickets.

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