Travel To – and Within – France

France has one the world’s most developed transport infrastructure networks. Railways, roads and airways are all of a very high standard and also – naturally – France has Europe’s biggest network of navigable waterways.

French Railway Network

There is a total of 31,939 km of railway lines in France, mostly operated by SNCF, the French national railway company. Starting in 1981, 1,800 km of high speed services have been developed, connecting France’s major cities and 1994 saw the opening of the Channel Tunnel rail link between France and Great Britain. The French high speed train, the TGV (train a grand vitesse) has set many world speed records, the most recent in 2007, when a new version of the TGV dubbed the V150 broke the world speed record for conventional railway trains, reaching 575 km/h (357 mph).

A slight step down from the impressive sophistication of the TGV, Corail trains serve as the basic ‘trunk railway’ service between towns, divided into Corail Teoz (daytime) and Corail Lunea (night-time). Corail carriages represented a major improvement, unmatched in Europe, when they were first introduced in 1975 and (having been modernised starting in 1995) they still provide pretty good air-conditioned comfort.

TER trains essentially provide local services; the type of train that stops at most, if not all, stations along the route. Used heavily for commuter travel, they are often very empty at other times – the cost of the service is subsidised by the state and by regional government and it loses money.

Paris has a world-famous Metro system that not only includes 14 electric underground train lines and 300 stations, but also the Parisian RER city-suburban express train network (5 lines, 246 stations) (< left) that interlinks with it and which was constructed between 1962 and 1977.

Buying tickets on whichever network is straightforward, whether in person at a station (using a ticket machine or at a ticket desk) or online. For train information and ticket booking get and download the TER widgetor the TGV widget.

One aspect that is different from UK practice is that after tickets have been issued they must be validated for the journey by ‘composting’ them – outside each platform is a small yellow box (right >) into which the ticket is inserted and which then punches a code. An inboard conductor may check your ticket and will not be pleased if you’ve forgotten to do this. A second aspect is that TGV and Corail tickets are issued with seat reservations – a digital display diagram of the train will appear before the train arrives indicating the carriage numbering, making it easy to find one’s own seat.

In general, French trains are outstandingly quiet and comfortable, especially the TGV trains, even if you don’t elect to travel first-class. Naturally, the Metro is a slightly different case . .

A significant number of French cities have their own underground, light rail, or overground tram systems, including Lyon, Marseilles, Montpellier, Bordeaux and Rouen.

French Road Network

In a similar vein, France has an excellent road transport network, ranging from the smallest rural C and D class roads, through to the modern national-international autoroute (motorway) system (< map left). Autoroutes are primarily toll roads, except where they go past cities. At the beginning of a toll section a ticket (‘ticket’) is collected and this is subsequently fed into a machine reader or scanned by a toll booth operator to determine the charge – which is most easily and very quickly settled by credit card. In recent decades French drivers have shed their former wild reputation in favour of a more sensible and considered attitude (they remain instinctive overtakers on ordinary roads) but if you dawdle in an outside lane you will experience aggressive tailgating and headlight flashing if not worse; and do not inconvenience big lorries because they too will give you a terrifying ‘lesson’, driving at speed extremely close to your back bumper.

France has a traditional ‘Priorité a Droit’ rule at road intersections – traffic coming from the right has priority and the ‘right’ to pull into the road (in front of you). This is much less commonplace than it used to be – it doesn’t apply on autoroutes and similar roads, it doesn’t – usually – apply on roundabouts (rond-pont or giratoire) and it doesn’t apply if the road features yellow diamond signs that provide that road (or section of road) with over-riding priority. However, it should be remembered that the Priorité a Droit rule was in force for a long time and not everyone of a ‘certain age’ has abandoned it, especially not in rural areas, nor have many Parisian drivers who will cut in and cut you up mercilessly. Taking care, keeping alert (‘soyez prudent’) is a good idea. Another typically French tradition, now more or less extinct and fading from memory like those wonderful painted gable end Dubonnet adverts, was the use of yellow headlights.

From 1 October 2008 all vehicles driven in France, including vehicles registered outside of France, must carry one ‘high-viz’ yellow reflective jacket and one warning triangle. The reflective jacket has to conform to EU standard and must be inside the car – not in the boot. It has become ‘de rigeur’ to hang the high-viz on the back of the passenger seat – but this is not a legal requirement.

French Airways Network

There is a big national airway network, with well over 200 airports of varying sizes. Paris has three airports – le Bourget (the oldest, now used almost exclusively for private planes), Orly (to the south of Paris, mainly continental European flights) and Charles de Gaulle (north east of Paris and one of the world’s biggest and busiest international hubs). Major cities such as Toulouse and Bordeaux have airports (Toulouse is currently anticipating the arrival of transatlantic services) but more minor cities and large towns like Carcassonne and Bergerac also have airports, usually with budget carriers like RyanAir, EasyJet and Flybe much in evidence. On the other hand, French carriers like Air France can be very expensive indeed for local flights.

Channel Crossings

The Channel Tunnel, in spite of well publicised problems during Xmas 2009, works very well from both foot passenger and vehicle points of view. For vehicles, the Eurotunnel departure point is near Folkestone on the M20 and there are up to three vehicle shuttle trains per hour to Calais. Having driven onto the shuttle carriage one can get out and walk around, although there is nothing to see (!!) and the journey lasts just 35 minutes and with disembarcation also very quick. The French end also connects conveniently and easily direct into the autoroute network. The tunnel can officially be used to bring dogs and other pets back into the UK under the PETS scheme, as can the major sea ferries (private yachts cannot).

The key sea ferry routes are

  • Dover to Calais and Dunkerque (Dunkirk) – frequent services at all times of the day and night, about 1.5 hrs crossing time
  • Dover to Boulogne – a new fast service
  • Newhaven to Dieppe – rather a cinderella service
  • Portsmouth to Caen (Ouistreham) – about 4 hrs
  • Portsmouth to Le Havre – a long crossing but convenient for the Loire and South-West France
  • Poole to Cherbourg or St Malo – also a long crossing, convenient for Brittany and the South-West, but also quite expensive

We have used most of these routes but now tend to value the ease and speed of the Channel Tunnel, whose cost is not greatly different from the comparable sea ferries to Dunkerque, Calais or Boulogne. As ever, prices change according to season and demand and booking well ahead provides the best price.