The basic message is that long distance travel with a bicycle by train in France is possible, despite what you might have heard about high speed trains like the TGV, but choice is limited and you need to book early, especially in summer. Regional services that can take accompanied bicycles are sparse but good. The French Railways web site can be found at www.voyages-sncf.com.
Railway lines in France are less dense than in Germany and there are fewer trains on the lines. Out in the sticks, two trains a day appears to be the norm, but services to the regional centres are generally adequate. The SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français or French National Railway Corporation) incorporates TGV, France’s high-speed rail network. Its functions include operation of trains for passengers and freight, and maintenance and signalling of rail infrastructure owned by Réseau Ferré de France (RFF).
This is the very French solution to European directives formulated to impose competition on national and pan-European rail networks. Great Britain got a botched privatisation, and the French kept the whole SNCF edifice intact by making it look privatised. Who is to say they were wrong? Recent work by the Office of the Rail Regulator suggests that National Rail is 34-40% less efficient than the nationalised European norm, and as we all know, standard British fares are the most expensive in Europe too.
Harking back to a time when we exported technology to France rather than the other way round, French trains drive on the left, except in Alsace and parts of Lorraine that were German between 1870 and 1918. Trams and underground railways run on the right because of their origins as road transport.
Travelling to various regions of France is described in “Taking your bicycle by bus, train and ship across Europe”.
You can download a slightly out-of-date map of the SNCF (there doesn’t seem to be anything better) at http://bit.ly/1PDA8RW
Train Types and Operators
Long distance express trains
Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV)
Literally ‘high speed train’, TGVs are very fast and comfortable train sets. Some of the newer examples of the class are double-deckers. Up to four bicycles are carried on certain TGV services: TGV Atlantique (except Duplex trains), parts of TGV Nord, TGV Est and TGV Lyria (Services to Switzerland from Paris Gare de Lyon).
A few words of warning though: tandems and recumbents (these are almost unknown in France), are only officially carried in trains with guards vans/baggage cars, which are now rare. They do seem to be tolerated elsewhere, although space can be tight.
When travelling on bike-carrying TGVs you will need to reserve bike places. Not only are there typically only four places available on each train, but the bikes block four part-time seats that can be used by travellers without reserved tickets, of whom there can be quite a few. They are unlikely to give up their seats unless you can wave a reservation under their noses and threaten to call the Gendarmes.
There is another class of TGV, the iDTGV which can only be booked online and offers cheaper fares than the conventional TGV trains. It appears to be aimed at the student market, but there are no age limits. This offers three types of accommodation: iDZap, iDZen and iDNight in the usual two classes: first and second class. iDZap is intended as an area where you get to know your fellow passengers. Probably a good place to practise your French chat up lines. iDZen is the public library area. Nobody speaks and you can read “Candide” in peace. iDNight is an overnight or a late in the day train and appears to be a moving disco and bar running more slowly than a conventional TGV. It sounds like a vision of Hell. However these trains cost about half the price of their conventional equivalents. There is, however, a major snag for the cyclist. These trains do not take bicycles unless they are bagged in a similar manner to the Eurostar trains, and you can only take two pieces of luggage on board, which sounds like a recipe for inventive packing.
These are conventional trains hauled by a locomotive. The trains run not only between major centres, but also important regional settlements. They are slightly slower than the TGVs, but fares are cheaper. Some are sleeper trains running at night.These are couchette rather than sleeping car trains, but on these trains one compartment has been modified to act as a bike garage. (See Table in the Onward Travel chapter.)
Regional Trains – Transport Express Régional (TER)
SNCF operates local railways and buses under the name TER. These services are heavily subsidised by the French taxpayer, with 72% of the cost being borne by the State and the regional councils on average, so travellers only pay about a third of the full cost of provision. TER trains consist of single or multiple-unit diesel, electric or dual-mode rail cars, as well as some Grandes Lignes rolling stock that has been ‘cascaded’ from intercity routes.
Popular Cycling Areas in France
Brittany, the Atlantic Coast: La Vèlodyssée, the Jura, the Loire Valley (Eurovélo 6), the Pyrenees, the Canal de Midi and surprisingly the Rhine Valley between Basel and Lauterbourg where the French bank of the river offers much better cycling than the German side which uses a maintenance road for the river authority as acycle track.
SNCF services are divided into two groups: Grandes Lignes (main line) and TER (regional services). Although nominally separate, the two groups work together and in practice there is no difference between them. If you use the SNCF home page this will also show TER services where appropriate. Not all, but some of the main line services will take bicycles, including some of the high speed TGVs, whereas the vast majority of regional trains do. You can find out which mainline trains carry bikes by checking timetables on www.voyages-sncf.com and seeing which trains display a bicycle logo. If there is room on your chosen train you can turn up, pop your bike on the train and away you go. You can however reserve bike places on long distance trains before travelling, and it is highly advisable. The local TER trains do not accept reservations and bicycle transport is free. Folders are welcome everywhere, provided they do not exceed 120cm x 90cm x 60cm.
There are a number of possibilities in Britain, and you can now book bike tickets online from www.captainetrain.com (see ‘Bike Tickets’ below).
1. By Phone – Voyages-SNCF: 0844 848 5848 Mon-Fri – 09:00-19:00 Saturday – 09:00-18:00
2. Online at https://www.capitainetrain.com.. The voyages-sncf.com site doesn’t seem to offer a simple way of booking a bike ticket online whereas the capitainetrain website lets you book bikes on French trains online, but not on Eurostar. It is probably better to sort out Eurostar and SNCF by phone.
SNCF offers several rail cards: For the old, the young, the very young, families and normal people. These only really pay if you live in France or are intending to travel extensively in France.
Your bicycle will cost ten Euros on long distance trains within France, but you MUST book early to get space on some Intercite and all TGV trains. A trailer probably costs the same amount, but this could be awkward in a TGV where there is limited bike space. Cycling for the French either means road bikes with violently coloured Lycra à la Tour de France or rusty pre-WWI ladies’ bikes used by farm workers in the country. Neither of these ever pull trailers. In our experience if you can show willing and partially dismantle the trailer it does help. Bicycle transport on local TER trains is free.
International bicycle tickets cost €10 – 15 and include a reservation for a bicycle. These are valid from your starting station to your destination. Recumbents (even short wheelbase recumbents) and tandems seem to cost double, even though they are technically banned from most trains.
To arrange bike transport on Intercité or TGV trains in France, it is now possible to book both your seat reservation and bike reservation at the same time by using the Capitaine Train online booking service: full details in English at https://blog.capitainetrain.com/6555-take-bike-on-train-france
Getting you and your bicycle on the train
If catching a train from a station with more than two platforms, the departure platform is announced only ten minutes before the train arrives. In Paris Est for example the departure platform of the TGV/ICE to Frankfurt is announced ten minutes before departure, causing an almighty stampede. The same is true in Germanically drilled Strasbourg, even though the train has been waiting empty for half an hour or so (If you have to wait in Strasbourg in winter use the northern concourse. It’s a lot warmer and there are more seats.). Way down south in Nice things are fortunately more casual and the departure platform of the sleeper trains is made public a good hour before departure.
You may have to hang (accrocher) your bikes on hooks anchored in the compartment ceiling. Unless you are built like Atlas, remove the panniers first. Avoid trying to lift the bikes up once the train is moving and take them down (deccrocher) in good time before your destination.
When you are on the way to the platform to catch your train, you will see small yellow pillars labelled ‘Compostage’ with a slit. Stick your ticket/s for the journey as purchased from ticket machines or the ticket office in this slit. You will hear the machine whine and print the date on your ticket/s. They are then valid for that journey but cannot be used again. If you do not do this you could be fined €50 or so by the conductor on the train.
We normally cross France in the dark to or from Paris and then take a night train south, though we did enjoy running into Nice along the Mediterranean coast early on a winter morning. We did enjoy a three week trip cycle partly along Eurovélo 6 from Breisach to Bordeaux some years ago, but if I was to do it again we would cycle upstream with the prevailing wind on our backs.