SHARE
COPY LINK

OPINION & ANALYSIS

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.

Member comments

  1. I live in Somerset, traditionally known for its slower pace of life, and would like to see it adopt this as its slogan and advertise it as a reason to visit. I wonder if the billions being spent on HS2 in the quest to shave a few minutes from journey times would be better spent improving other areas of life in general?

  2. Excellent idea. Let’s hope it all pans out positively. It’s clear that the way the last two generations have lived (in the affluent countries) will historically be viewed as anomalous to humanity’s story in general over the long term. Two generations of excessive fossil fuel reliance is biting our backsides.

  3. Absolutely brilliant idea and will help the rural communities.

    What a refreshing change in an ever speedier world.

    France leading the way.

  4. This is brilliant. I love rail travel, and always have enjoyed going by slower “milk run” routes. A decade ago, my wife and I boarded the wrong train between Florence and Rome and had the greatest fun rocking along slowly from town to town, picnicking out of our shopping, and absorbing a pantheon of scenes and characters which would have been entirely absent/excluded on a high speed route. It took many hours longer than our intended route, but was the highlight of the trip. Slow train travel sounds just right to me.

  5. Great idea. I cross an old disused railway line virtually every day here in the Var. Would be good to use it again. But I hope the road crossings are given gates for improved safety once trains are running again

  6. I really hope this idea succeeds. Although I can’t compete with a self-confessed “fan of railways” 😉 at Crewe station, I did spend some time as a kid watching trains in south Manchester before Dr Beeching wielded his axe.
    These days I observe both local (slow) trains and TGVs – admittedly travelling very slowly compared to the speeds they are capable of – from our house in Machilly, to the east of Geneva.
    The opportunity to view the landscape properly – as opposed to a blur at 300 kph – seems very civilised, and for that reason alone we should give it our full support.

  7. This is great news. Hubby and I have been considering property in rural France (we live in the US). Part of our evaluation criteria is to be near train service. As soon to be retirees, we want the freedom to travel without driving everywhere. As service expands, more regions/properties will be open for us to consider. It will be incredible to see service restored to smaller towns.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

TRAVEL NEWS

Weekend travel warning on French roads as summer getaway continues

The roads will be packed over the weekend France's roads watchdog has warned as tens of thousands of holidaymakers escape the cities and head for coast or countryside. 

Weekend travel warning on French roads as summer getaway continues

The Bison Futé service has classed traffic levels across most of France on Saturday as red – its second highest level, meaning travel on roads out of all major French cities will be “very difficult” – with those in the eastern Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region classed as  “extremely difficult”, the highest level.

But the problems begin earlier, with traffic levels on France’s major arterial routes rising from lunchtime on Friday, as some holidaymakers set off early to avoid the rush.

Image: Bison Futé

Bison Futé advises road users heading away from major cities in France to:

  • leave or cross the Île-de-France before 12noon;
  • avoid the A13 between Paris and Rouen from 5pm to 9pm, and between Rouen and Caen from 3pm to 9pm;
  • avoid the A10 between Orleans and Tours from 4pm to 7pm;
  • avoid the A63 between Bordeaux and Bayonne from 3pm to 7pm;
  • avoid the A7 between Lyon and Orange from 4pm to 10pm, and between Salon-de-Provence and Marseille from 3pm to 8pm;
  • avoid the A8 between Aix-en-Provence and Nice from 12pm to 8pm;
  • avoid the A9 between Montpellier and Narbonne from 4pm to 7pm;
  • avoid the A62 between Bordeaux and Toulouse from 4pm to 8pm;
  • avoid the Mont-Blanc tunnel in the direction of Italy from 1pm to 7pm (waiting time greater than 1 hour).

Meanwhile, those heading back to the cities from popular French holiday resorts should:

  • avoid the A13 between Rouen and Paris from 5pm to 8pm;
  • avoid the A10 between Bordeaux and Poitiers from 1pm to 8pm;
  • avoid the A7 between Orange and Lyon from 3pm to 6pm;
  • avoid the A8 near Aix-en-Provence from 4pm to 9pm;
  • avoid the A62 between Toulouse and Agen from 3pm to 8pm.

On Saturday, the busiest day of the weekend on France’s roads, Bison Fute says motorists heading away from major cities should:

Image: Bison Futé
  • leave or cross Ile-de-France after 4pm;
  • avoid the A13 between Rouen and Caen from 1pm to 3pm;
  • avoid the A11 between Paris and Le Mans from 11am to 1pm;
  • avoid the A10 at the Saint-Arnoult-en-Yvelines toll area from 8am to 12pm, and between Orléans and Bordeaux from 10am to 6pm;
  • avoid the A63 between Bordeaux and Bayonne from 1pm to 5pm, 
  • go through the Fleury toll area on the A6 after 12pm;
  • avoid the A7 between Lyon and Orange from 10am to 3pm and between Salon-de-Provence and Marseille from 1pm to 6pm;
  • avoid the A9 between Orange and Montpellier from 8am to 10am;
  • avoid the A75 between Clermont-Ferrand and Montpellier from 11am to 1pm;
  • avoid the A62 between Agen and Toulouse from 11am to 5pm;
  • avoid the Mont-Blanc tunnel in the direction of Italy from 10am to 1pm (waiting time greater than 1 hour);

Those heading the other way on Saturday should:

  • return to or cross Ile-de-France before 2pm;
  • avoid the A10 motorway, between Bordeaux and Poitiers, from 1pm to 3pm;
  • avoid the A7 motorway, between Marseille and Salon-de-Provence, from 9am to 3pm and between Orange and Lyon, from 12pm to 3pm;
  • avoid the A8 motorway, between Nice and Aix-en-Provence, from 10am to 2pm;
  • avoid the A9 motorway, between Montpellier and Orange, from 11am to 1pm.
  • Travel becomes much easy on French roads on Sunday, Bison Fute said.
Image: Bison Futé

But it has still issued the following advice for those travelling to holiday destinations

  • avoid the A10 between Poitiers and Bordeaux from 3pm to 5pm;
  • avoid the A63 between Bordeaux and Bayonne from 5pm to 8pm;
  • avoid the A7 between Lyon and Orange from 12pm to 4pm.

Transport Minister Clément Beaune reminded holidaymakers that motorway operators were offering 10 percent reductions in the price of tolls holders of holiday vouchers for the whole of the summer holiday period.

SHOW COMMENTS