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LIVING IN FRANCE

Everything you need to know about taking the train in France

As more and more people swap planes for trains, here's what you need to know about using the French rail network.

Everything you need to know about taking the train in France
Photo: Cisalpin1984 Train/Flickr

The French train system, almost exclusively operated by state-owned company SNCF, is admired in many countries for its efficiency and relative value. 

While people who actually use them on a everyday basis might dispute the system’s hallowed reputation, it’s hard to argue with the pleasure of getting on a TGV in Paris and ending up in Marseille just over three hours later or Bordeaux in two hours.

And if you’re still unconvinced, maybe SNCF’s rather cool advert will sway you.

Even so, travelling by train in France isn’t always a piece of cake. Here’s what you need to know about using them from people who learnt the hard way.

Types of train 

In addition to its lauded high-speed TGV trains, SNCF also runs;

TER trains –  local lines connecting smaller towns and villages

Intercité – the service linking major towns and cities

Transilien – suburban trains which service the greater Paris Île-de-France region. Within Paris, SNCF is also responsible for some of the suburban RER trains, although the Metro, bus and tram network is run by city operator RATP.

On the TGV routes, there are two options: InOui and Ouigo.

InOui trains which were officially launched in September 2018 are designed for greater passenger comfort and connectivity, whereas Ouigo is a budget service with low-cost tickets, restrictions on baggage and a timetable that might not suit everyone.

The two services are compared to the difference between an airline like Air France and a low-cost carrier like easyJet. If you’re travelling on a Ouigo service be sure to check your destination, just like budget airlines some services end at points quite some distance from your specified destination, such ‘Paris’ services that terminate in Massy, 24km away from Paris.

When to travel

Unsurprisingly French trains are very popular both with locals and tourists so travelling during busy periods like the school holidays can be hectic. 

“Always check start and end school holiday dates before booking and if you are lucky enough to have a flexible schedule, avoid those days entirely,” says seasoned TGV traveller, Barbara Learmonth. 

Also check the news to make sure there are no strikes planned for your journey date – while the French reputation for striking is slightly exaggerated, there has been at least one train strike in France every year since 1947 and industrial action is planned for the summer.

Places, trains and roads: France’s timetable for 2022 summer strikes

Remember to validate your ticket 

If you’re using a paper ticket, you need to validate it before boarding.

This should be done before you get on the train and can be done at one of the yellow SNCF validating machines on platforms. It’s worth pointing out that this applies to city public transport like the Paris Metro as well, you can be fined if you are caught travelling without a validated ticket.

Tickets can only be validated on the day of travel so you can’t get away with trying to save time by doing it ahead of schedule. 

People who book online don’t need to worry about this. If you’ve done this, just present your printout or electronic ticket to the inspector when asked.

Buying a ticket on the train

For those inevitable moments when the ticket machines are out of order or just aren’t there – usually when travelling on the regional TER trains, you can go to the conductor of the train who will charge you the same amount as the advanced ticket fee. 

And if the ticket booths were open but you were running late, you should still be proactive and find the conductor.

Barbara Learmonth says: “It may cost €6 or €7 more but a fine is much worse for not having a ticket. It’s your responsibility to find them before they check.” 

Another reader, Jennifer Freedman warns: “My 16-year-old daughter was fined €100 in late April because her connecting train (in Switzerland) arrived late and she didn’t have time to buy a ticket.” 

Departure boards

Trains will be displayed on boards with their final destination not necessarily where you are getting off. 

“Use the time and number of your train to find your platform. With local trains that have five digits often the first digit is not used on the display boards,” Barbara Learmonth says. 

Your train will either be displayed on the departure board as à l’heure (on time), retardé (delayed), annulé or supprimé (cancelled). You may also see a service described as perturbé (disrupted).

Seats

Each different train type has a different way of labelling their seats, and some local trains have no seat allocations at all. “First, make sure you have the correct coach,” Christine Cantera says. “It’s on your ticket, and on the platform there is a sign that tells you where to stand so that you’re in front of that coach when it pulls in.”

Look for the diagram of the train on each platform.

“If you’re disabled, many trains have stairs to get from the track into the train. Make sure to plan ahead with SNCF to get on the train safely and properly,” recommends Barbara Learmonth. 

Double-decker trains  

Many of France’s trains are double-decker or have two floors. Upstairs is great for the views but not great on a hot and sticky train.

Luggage

Don’t make the mistake of putting your luggage in the racks by the train doors as you get on, one reader advises. 

“A personal gripe of mine is when people put smaller bags in the racks near the carriage entrance. There are large enough luggage racks above your seat for even medium size suitcases. This leaves the entry racks free for large cases.”

And for any cyclists, another reader says: “France is a very bike-friendly country, and many trains have areas specially for bikes.”

There are two options for taking your bicycle on SNCF trains, either disassemble it and pack it in a bag no larger than 120 cm high x 90 cm or store it in the area set aside for bicycles which can be found on most trains.

Pet-friendly

All SNCF trains let you travel with your pet so there’s no need to leave them at home. Just remember, they’ll need their own ticket.

Pet tickets were recently simplified and now cost €7 for TGV Inoui, TER or Intercité trains and €10 for Ouigo trains. The pet ticket is available from ticket booths or online booking, but there is no need to book a seat for your pet. Small pets such as cats and small dogs should travel in a carrier while large dogs must wear a muzzle. 

And if you have a pet snail, that will also need its own ticket.

Border crossing

Travelling within the Schengen zone is generally a pretty smooth experience, but if you are crossing a border on your journey remember to have your passport with you.

Passports or ID cards can be checked at the border itself or on arrival at the station, although in many cases there are no checks at all.

Stave off the boredom

As beautiful as the French countryside can be, you might find that faced with a few hours of staring out of the window you’re ready for something to keep you busy. 

If so, one reader recommends taking advantage of the short story vending machines that you’ll find at many train stations around France.

TGV trains have onboard wifi, although the connection is not always the best so if you want to entertain yourself with a series or podcast it might be better to download episodes in advance. 

Snack time

On the TGV routes InOui trains will have a café so you can tick making a picnic for the train off your to-do list. And they sell warm meals, as well as wine and beer and sandwiches and snacks. One bit of advice though, if you are hungry then get in the queue early before the restaurant coach opens because if you leave it late, you can spend a good 20 minutes in the queue.

Note that Ouigo services do not have a bar.

Check for updates

If you’re planning your journey and want up to date information, for example if you’re worried about strikes or other disruptions, you can check the SNCF website or the SNCF app for the latest news. During strikes, SNCF generally publishes a revised strike timetable at around 5pm detailing services for the following day. 

Member comments

  1. As a fully “recovered” advertising guy, I have to LAUGH at the dippy name the SNCF came up with for its new “premium” TGV service . . . inOUI. Has anyone else noticed that this is a PERFECT homonym (sound-alike) for (wait for it, drum roll): ennui ? (Boredom).
    HA HA HA HA. Reminds me of the 1968 USA Cadillac car tagline: “Now longer in length.”

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For members

STRIKES

What to expect from the February 7th strike in France

February 7th marks the third day of mass strike action in the ongoing battle between the French government and unions over pension reform. From planes and trains to school, ski lifts and power cuts - here's what to expect on Tuesday.

What to expect from the February 7th strike in France

The next ‘mass mobilisation’ in the ongoing battle against pension reform is scheduled for Tuesday, February 7th, and will be followed by another one on Saturday, February 11th.

5 minutes to understand French pension reform

Tuesday’s mobilisation is supported by all eight French trades union federations, which means that support is likely to be high and disruption severe on certain services.

It will come as French lawmakers debate the bill in the Assemblé Nationale.

Workers in essential services such as transport must declare their intention to strike 48 hours in advance, allowing transport operators to produce strike timetables, which are usually released 24 hours in advance.

We will update this story as new information is released.

READ MORE: ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

Trains

The four main unions (CGT Cheminots, Sud Rail, CFDT Cheminots, and UNSA Ferroviaire) representing workers with France’s national rail service, SNCF, have all called for strike action on Tuesday, February 7th.

During the day of action on January 31st, 36.5 percent of railway workers went on strike, compared to 46 percent on January 19th.

In addition to Tuesday’s strike action, two of the above unions, CGT and Sud Rail, have also called on workers to strike on February 8th. However, as of February 2nd, the other two primary unions had not made any calls to take part in Wednesday’s action.

Intercity and TER trains operated by the SNCF will likely see services disrupted on Tuesday with many cancellations. International trains including the Eurostar could also be affected.

City public transport

In the Paris region, the main unions representing RATP (Paris region public transport services) issued a joint statement on February 1st saying they would join calls for mobilisation on February 7th.

Traffic was severely disrupted on the most recent day of strike action, January 31st, on certain RER lines, with some lines like the RER C running an average of 1 train out of 10. As for the Paris Metro system, several lines only ran during peak hours and many stations across the city were closed. Many buses continued running, though with delays to usual operating times.

Other cities including Marseille and Lyon will likely see a repeat of severely disrupted bus, tram and Metro services.

In Lyon, on January 31st, public transport services were strongly impacted by strike action, and one metro line did not run at all throughout the day. 

Air travel

While it is not yet clear what level of disruption to expect in air travel, the leading civil aviation union, USACcgt, has called on “all DGAC (French civil aviation authority) and ENAC (National school of civil aviation) staff to go on strike en masse and take part in demonstrations” on February 7th, according to reporting by Le Parisien.

During the two previous mobilisations, approximately 20 percent of flights operating out of Paris-Orly airport were cancelled, but other airports were not affected. 

Ports

Port and dock workers walked on January 31st. It is not yet clear if they will join actions on February 7th, but typically strikes in this sector impact commercial ports rather than ferry ports. 

Schools

Tuesday’s strike will take place during the first round of winter holidays – so students in the Zone A (Besançon, Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand, Dijon, Grenoble, Limoges, Lyon, Poitiers) will already be off school.

You can find out more information about France’s school zones here.

Nevertheless – one of the major unions representing teachers, Snuipp-FSU said in a statement that they hope to see an “amplification” of previous walkouts, as they called on teachers to walk out on February 7th.

Primary school teachers (maternelle and elementary schools) are required to inform students and families at least 48 hours in advance of their intent to strike.

On January 31st, the Ministry of Education reported that about 25.9 percent of teachers walked out, in comparison to the 38.5 percent who walked out on the 19th. Numbers offered by the Snuipp-FSU union were higher – they said that about 50 percent of elementary school teachers walked out, and that 55 percent of secondary school teachers did so as well.

In addition to industrial action by teachers, several student unions, like the “National Student Movement” (MNL), representing high school students have made an effort to mobilise French youth across the nation, with some blocking the entrance to their high schools on strike days. According to the Journal des Femmes, the MNL has called on high schoolers across the country to walk out again on the 7th.

Ski lifts

BFMTV reported on January 31st that a walkout was scheduled for seasonal workers for approximately one hour and thirty minutes on Tuesday, February 7th. This means that in some resorts, ski lifts and stores could be closed. 

READ MORE: What to expect from strike action in France during the February school holidays

The two unions that represent more than 90 percent of workers in ski resorts have also called an ‘unlimited’ strike which began on January 31st. This means further actions could come later in the month as well.

Petrol stations

French refinery workers have threatened to strike for a 72-hour period beginning on February 6th. Union representative, Eric Sellini, told AFP that these actions could result in a “lower throughput” for petrol and a “stoppage of shipments.”

This could mean that there may be shortages of petrol and diesel at some filling stations if the blockades are successful in stopping supplies leaving the refineries.

The mobilisation on January 31st saw a significant number of refinery workers walk out – between 75 to 100 percent at some refinery and oil depots, according to the union CGT.

Power cuts 

Workers in the energy sector (electricity and gas), primarily represented by the union FNME-CGT, have announced plans to strike from February 6th through 8th. 

The day of action on January 31st had 40.3 percent of employees at EDF (France’s national energy provider) walk out, in comparison to 44.5 percent on January 19th.

Some workers in this sector have taken what they call “Robin Hood” actions to “distribute free electricity” to hospitals, schools and low-income housing areas.

On January 31st, striking workers brought about significant load reductions in some power plants across the country – approximately 3,000 MW according to La Depeche. However, these reductions in power reportedly did not lead to any power cuts on the 31st.

Demos

Demonstrations are expected in cities and towns across the country.

January 31st, the most recent day of large scale mobilisation, saw over 1.27 million people take to the streets according to the interior ministry. In Paris, the number of protesters was estimated at 87,000, higher than the 80,000 clocked last time, the ministry told AFP.

In Lyon, the route for the demonstration has already been decided, according to Lyon Capitale. It will begin at 12pm in front of the Manufacture des Tabacs. The procession will move toward the Place Bellecour.

Unions are hoping for a similar turnout on February 7th.

Other strike dates

The above information relates to February 7th only. Unions have also called for more walkouts on February 11th. 

Additionally, the strike by oil refinery workers is expected to run for 72 hours, meaning it will continue into Wednesday, February 8th. There could be more action in later days by oil refinery workers, as they have called for an ‘unlimited strike’.

Other unions have also declared ‘unlimited’ strikes, so there could be disruptions on these services on other days – these include ski lift operators and truck drivers.

It is highly likely that further one-day or multi-day strikes will be announced for February and March, as the pension reform bill comes before parliament, you can keep up to date with out strike calendar HERE.

We will update this article as more information becomes available, and you can also keep up with the latest in our strike section HERE.

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