The numbers that show France’s proud rail service is struggling

France prides itself on its rail service (or at last its TGV trains), but a new report suggests it is not in rude health. Here are the key numbers that tell the story of the state of French rail.

The numbers that show France's proud rail service is struggling
Photo: AFP
A new report by French rail regulator Arafer revealed a few truths about the state of the rail service in France.
That's France's ranking in Europe for the use of the rail system.
In France an average of 48 trains run daily per kilometre of track which is a fairly poor level of usage compared to other countries. For example the Netherlands runs 140 trains per kilometre of track each day and in Switzerland it is 119. Even the UK (96) and Germany (75) make more use of its rail network than France does.
50 percent
That's the proportion of passenger trains that run on just 9 percent of the country's tracks, meaning half of all services run on just under 10 percent of the total tracks, which illustrates a strong disparity for the use of the network.
Another stat which highlights this problem is that 31 percent of train lines carry just 1 percent of services. In other words a third of the network is not economically viable and could face closure.
Down 1 percent
The number of passengers transported on trains in France dropped in 2016 by 1 percent and between 2011 and 2016 the average drop in rail passengers services is 0.5 percent. “This drop in usage reflects a relative loss of attractiveness of the rail model, while other modes of transport show growth over the same period,” noted Arafer.
14 percent
This figure reflects the rise in coach travel since 2011, which means long distance buses are the one form of transport that is booming in France. In 2015/16, since Emmanuel Macron freed up the economy to allow coach travel, traffic has risen 17 percent. 
Both rail and bus transport tails far behind cars in France which are responsible for 88 percent of journeys. Train journeys represent just 9.2 percent of all journeys.
That reflects the average speed of France's prestigious high speed TGV trains in France. So although the TGV – the pride of France's rail system can travel over 300 km/h as we are regularly reminded in adverts, the average speed of a journey is well below that. The reasons being the frequency of stops, which of course slows the trains down but also the fact that many TGVs run on normal train lines where the speed limit is 160 km/h.
In reality the TGV doesn't travel that much faster than Intercité trains, for which the average speed is 103 km/h. However this figure may improve given that new high speed lines (LGV) have opened along sections of tracks, notably between Paris an Bordeaux and Paris Strasbourg recently.
20 percent
That's the figure for the number of delayed regional trains in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region at rush hour – the worst of all France's regions. The region with the least delays is Brittany (6 percent). The average figure for delayed regional trains around France is 11 percent.
6.2 million minutes
This represents the time wasted by passengers due to late trains in 2015. And 55 percent of those “lost minutes” were due to reasons that could have been avoided, rather than natural causes for example, defective equipment or infrastructure or mismanagement of works.
That's the number of regional TER trains that were cancelled in France at the last minute in 2016 (1.9 percent of all services).
18 percent
That's the percentage of TGV services that were delayed; Around 20 percent of all delayed TGV trains are more than 30 minutes late.
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How to find cheap train tickets in France

Travelling by train is one of the best ways to see France - even with a mandatory mask on. Here - from railcards to sales - is how you can make it even better by cutting the cost of your ticket.

A blue high-speed Ouigo low-cost TGV train arriving at  de l'Est railway station in Paris, with the the Sacre-Coeur Basilica in the background
From cheap services to railcards, here's how to save money on train travel. Photo: Joel Saget / AFP

Railcards are the most common way to cut the cost of a ticket. In some cases, the card can even pay for itself in one journey. France’s rail operator SNCF has a range of cards available for everyone from impoverished students to regular business travellers with an expenses account to burn.

But if you’re not a regular traveller there are also a range of offers plus cheaper services to opt for.

Let’s start with the railcards.

Liberté card

This one’s really for business travellers, who use the TGV or Ouigo and Intercite trains regularly. And it comes with a price to match – €399 for a year. This guarantees cardholders 60 percent off SNCF’s Business Première fares when travelling standard class, and  45 percent off Business Première fares when travelling 1st class. Plus, there’s between 25 percent and 50 percent off TER fares in certain regions, and it’s valid for use in other European countries.

Forfait pass

Effectively a season ticket, this one’s for commuters who regularly use TGV INOUI or Intercité services to get to work. Prices vary based on how much you travel, and you can get annual, monthly or weekly passes. Click here for a calculation of how much you will have to pay.

Avantage Senior 60+ card

SNCF relatively recently rebranded its railcards under the Avantage umbrella. If you’re aged 60 or over and travel occasionally with TGV Inoui, Intercités or TER in France, you will save 30 percent on first and standard class travel, for an annual fee of €49. And there’s 60 percent off ticket prices for up to three accompanying children aged between four and 11.

In fact, standard fares are capped for all destinations in France, no matter when you book. And that’s on top of a 30 percent guaranteed discount on 1st- and standard-class train tickets. 

You’re guaranteed affordable fares, even at the last minute. They’re currently capped as follows:

  • €39 or less for a short journey (under 90 minutes)
  • €59 or less for a medium-length journey (between 90 minutes and three hours)
  • €79 or less for the longest journey (over three hours)

Plus, there are savings on food and drink prices on the train – as well as other perks that are worth looking into.

Avantage Adulte Card

If you’re aged 27-59 and take TGV Inoui, Intercités or TER trains often, it’s worth looking into the Avantage Adulte card – which has replaced the Avantage Weekend and Avantage Famille cards – because you’ll save 30 percent on first and standard class tickets for the annual €49 fee.

Discounts extend to accompanying adults, and there’s 60 percent off ticket prices for up to three accompanying children aged between four and 11.

As with the Senior card, standard class fares are capped for all destinations in France. And you get the onboard perks too, including 15 percent off food and drink from the trolley.

Avantage Jeune Card

For anyone aged 12 to 27, the Avantage Jeune card will save you 30 percent on TGV Inoui and Intercité services that require booking for the annual €49 fee.

Standard class fares are capped for all destinations in France. And you get the onboard perks too, including 15 percent off food and drink from the trolley.

Other ways to save money

If you’re not a regular travellers and don’t want a railcard, there are other ways to save money when travelling.

Ouigo trains

SNCF’s low-cost TGV service offers high-speed cut-price travel in and out of Paris to 17 French destinations. There are drawbacks though, the trains have fewer on-board services and some of them only go to stations close to a city, rather than the city-centre station – so it’s worth checking when you book exactly where you will end up.

Children under 12 years of age can travel for €5 all year long, or €8 to or from a station in Paris.

Railcards are valid on Ouigo trains, cutting ticket prices further.

Happy Hour

Be aware of last-minute ‘Happy Hour’ deals on available on select days for selected Intercité trains to a selection of destinations around France. You could save up to 50 percent on ticket prices. And, yes, railcards are valid.

Ticket sales

Watch out, too, for announcements of when tickets are available for sale. From November 3rd, for example, rail tickets are available up to March 27, 2022 – and up to July 2, 2022, for Inoui tickets.

Early booking may get you a good deal, and SNCF offers regular deals particularly around peak travel times such as summer and Christmas. Downloading the SNCF app will get you advance notification of sales.