August 17, 2018

Europe - The French and trains

Each year a whopping 110m passengers take high-speed trains within France

A TEENAGER, headphones pinned to his ears, heaves a stuffed backpack across the station hall. A team of adult supervisors, eyes darting back and forth, guides boisterous children in fluorescent yellow jackets through the ticket barrier, on their way to a colonie de vacances, French subsidised summer camp. A tall, lean father in well-pressed shorts marches three small matching boys towards the platform. Fit-looking grandparents climb into a train carriage, shepherding grandchildren to their seats.

August in France, when Paris empties out, brings an annual ritual to the country’s mainline railway stations. Out go the besuited early-morning travellers, settling into high-speed TGV trains for business meetings in Bordeaux or Lyon. In come extended families, fishing rods, skateboards, tennis racquets, pushchairs and cats in carry-on baskets. Each year, thanks to a network of fast links that can connect Paris to Marseille on the Mediterranean coast 800km away in just over three hours, as well as discounted family tickets, a massive 110m passengers take TGVs within France. Every day, 820 of these trains tear up and down the country. Overall, Germany may have more railway tracks. But train travel in France grabs a greater share of all journeys than in Germany, Britain, Spain or Italy.

Railways loom large in the French imagination. Claude Monet painted 12 oils of the Gare Saint-Lazare in 1877, the billowing dark steam from the engines rising towards the light clouds outside. “Fear the day that a train no longer stirs you,” wrote Guillaume Apollinaire, in his war poem “Victory”. While launching a startup incubator in a converted former railway depot in Paris last year, President Emmanuel Macron deservedly got into trouble for describing a train station as a “place where one passes those who succeed, and those who are nothing”.

Inaugurated in 1981, the TGV is regarded as an emblem of national technical prowess. It revived rail travel and shrank the country’s mental map. After the opening last year of new fully high-speed links to Rennes and Bordeaux, no further lines are planned. But its cost has plunged the SNCF into debt, which the government is now taking onto its books as part of its railway reform. Planned competition may change the nature and branding of the trains on French tracks. But the summer rituals will doubtless remain.