EXPLAINED: Rail services in rural France could soon be derailed

France will soon decide the fate of 9,000 kilometres of little used railway lines across the country. John Lichfield looks at whether there is any light at the end of the tunnel for the troubled train services in parts of rural France.

EXPLAINED: Rail services in rural France could soon be derailed
All photos AFP

For railways March is always the cruellest month.

In March 1963 Dr Richard Beeching published his infamous report calling for the closure of 8,000 kilometres of railway lines and 2,300 stations in Britain.

In March 2019,  François Philizot – Le Docteur Beeching Français? – will publish a study on the fate of over 9,000 kilometres of little-used railway lines in France.

They include a spectacular 277 kilometres line through the Massif Central from Béziers to Cantal which operates a single passenger train in each direction a day, plus an occasional freight. One of its many stations, Les Cabrils, attracts 14 passengers a year.

In the midst of a tenacious Gilets Jaunes rebellion, the government insists that it will resist any temptation to axe loss-making, rural railway lines.

Last year, well before Peripheral France revolted, it rammed through other reforms of the state-owned railways, the SNCF. It rejected proposals to save €1 billion a year by shutting 20 per cent of the country’s rail network.


The problem is that shunting the problem into a siding is no longer an option. Many small lines have been starved of investment for decades. The resources of SNCF Réseau, the arm of the state railways which owns track and stations, have been concentrated on France’s splendid new high-speed lines since 1981.

It emerged recently that some rural lines in the south-west have not been fully maintained for 50 years. Some track has not been re-laid since the 1930s.

Three quarters of the cost of local lines already falls on regional governments which are running short of funds. The government cannot afford to bail them out. The transport ministry calculates that it is cheaper to hire fleets of taxis than to operate lines with less than 200 travellers a day.

Something like half – over 4,500 kilometres – of France’s “lignes de desserte fine” (lines of local access)  are now operating at low speeds because the track is unreliable. Several dozen of them have been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

Gilles Savary, a former Socialist deputy, and expert on railways, says: “The railway is a territorial icon in France. Where there is the railway, there is the Republic. Shutting the local station is like shutting the local school.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station closely observing trains.

I have long been jealous, on Britain’s behalf, of the fine new network of Trains à Grande Vitesse (TGVs) created in France in the last 40 years.

The problem is that the TGV revolution came at the cost of neglecting both suburban rail networks and rural lines. Some routes have been closed but there has never been a strategic plan for France’s “lower speed” railways. French governments have asked, but none has had the courage to answer, the questions posed by Dr Richard Beeching in 1963.

Is a local railway network built in the 19th century suitable for the 20th century – or now the 21st?  What is the purpose of single-track branch-lines operating four trains a day when almost everyone has a car and buses are cheaper and often kinder to the environment?

The Beeching Plan in Britain closed some railways that should have been kept alive. A few of them, like the line through the Scottish Borders and the line from Oxford to Cambridge, are being re-opened half a century later.

These are the exceptions. The great majority of the lines cut by Beeching had long outlived their original purpose.


François Philizot, the senior government official who reports on the future of rural railways this month, is said to be examining all options short of closure. They include converting branch lines to narrow roads dedicated to buses; or to rebuilding lines as driverless tramways operated by computer; or severing them from the rest of the network to save costs on signalling.

M. Philizot should also ponder what happened to many of the Beechingised lines in the UK, which have since been rebuilt by volunteers as heritage steam railways.

Many of France’s underused and neglected railways pass through spectacular countryside. With a little public or private investment, they could become tourist railways which bring income to their regions rather than swallow tax-payers’ euros.

The Gilet Jaunes rebellion has made Paris unusually sensitive to the problems of La France Profonde. It’s possible that any recommendations for investment from Mr Philizot will be taken seriously.

 (Regional train map for central France. How many of these lines will be around in 10 years time? Photo: TER/Wikicommons)

 (Regional train map for Midi-Pyrenees. How many of these lines will be around in 10 years time? Photo: TER/Wikicommons)

More likely, the government and the SNCF will continue with their present policy of Beeching-by-stealth. Thirty small lines have been “suspended” in the last decade. Without new spending, railway unions say, many more lines will have to be closed for safety reasons.

“In the next two or three years, 40 per cent of small lines are at risk if government doesn’t put its hand in its pocket for repairs,” says Bruno Poncet of the militant union Sud Rail.

In truth, the government’s pockets are empty, and likely to be emptier after its past and future concessions to the Gilets Jaunes.

There is little light at the end of the 38 tunnels on the 277 kilometres from Béziers on the Mediterranean coast to Neussargues in the Cantal.

You can follow John Lichfield on Twitter at @John_Lichfield

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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.