The sad truth about French trains
Jul 19, 2011
6 minute read

The French culture is killing us

As a Frenchman, I am really proud of my country. Among the mass of peons, France gave birth to some of the brightest minds of this century. Designers, musicians, engineers, writers, actors who quickly gained international recognition for their talent.

However, these fine folks often expatriate themselves instead of staying in their own country. The ‘brain drain’ is a well-studied subject by historians, but I believe there is another explanation for the systematic departure of great figures to other, greener-grass countries.

There is, of course, fiscality. France is not a good country to be rich in, except if you’re into politics, in which case you only need excellent lawyers. Ex-President Jacques Chirac was famously caught after his presidency for several shady transactions, but his many friends and love of African art pieces apparently let him get away unscarred. And that’s only one of the numerous cases that we see passing every month.

Another reason for the exile might be a near-permanent state of strike. Try to build a business when you can’t get people in or out the country because airport or train workers suddenly decided to stop working. Try to maintain a consistent school education when sometimes teachers stop working for weeks at a time. Try to maintain good client relations when the post office sometimes retain letters for more than a month!

Ultimately, it all boils down to culture. The French culture is all about strict laws that nobody respects but still pretends to. It’s about forcing people to work illegally if they want to survive as entrepreneurs, because playing by the rules sometimes means giving the governement a 60% cut in your first year. It’s about cheating at exams, because without a piece of paper nobody will hire you. It’s about hot steam and empty promises, because according to the studies of TV Shows producers, it’s what the people ask for.

For non-French citizens, it might be hard to realize how such a country can exist and, more surprisingly, subsist. I’ve lived 17 years there, then moved on to Switzerland, and still can only wonder how the edifice hasn’t tumbled down just yet. One thing that is strikingly archetypal of the whole French system are trains.

Divide and laughter

A good summary of French trains goes like this: the SNCF’s core business is TGVs (Trains à Grande Vitesse). Those high-speed trains have benefited from almost every technological advance there has ever been in the industry. France has won several times the speed record, beating Japan and other asian countries in the course. However, if you’re not taking a TGV, the SNCF hates your guts.

Recently, a friend of mine was trying to figure out whether he could take his bike with him on the train. Unfortunately all train are not born equal. When you go take a plane, what do you take? A plane. When you take a French train, you can take either a TER, TGV, iDTGV, RER, Corail, Téoz, Lunéa, Eurostar, Thalys, Elipsos, Lyria, Artesia, etc.

But wait, that’s not all! There are 13 models of TGVs, all with different rules as to whether bikes are authorized or not. Some authorize it, except during peak hours. Some, if your folded bike is smaller than given dimensions. For some, you have to make a mandatory reservation for your bike. For some, it’s simply forbidden.

That’s only for the portion of French trains that the SNCF manages. TER trains are managed by each region individually, with budgets ranging from 57 million EUR (Poitou-Charentes) to 465 million EUR (Rhônes-Alpes, where I grew up). No region handles TERs the same way. Even tickets are different. To add to the delirium, not even all TGVs are handled by the SNCF. Only 4-digits SNCF are handled by the SNCF, other 5-digits and 6-digits ones are handled by the regions.

A ticket to hell

The ticketing system for French trains is pure insanity. At this point, pretty much the whole population has given up the hope to be able to compute SNCF fares itself. It’s not based on distance, time, or any measurable quantity. Although the company is frequently found to violate the law regarding pricing (e.g. no free phone number for tariff information), its only visible effort has been a 100-page leaflet containing obscure pricing tables that did nothing but confuse people further.

The online reservation system is a counter-example of design in itself. A protest group has been formed for the sole purpose of obtaining a reasonably good online ordering system. It took a court order to make pricing appear clearly on the website. There are at least ten different fidelity programs, dozens of tariffs for children, teenagers, elders, students, professionals, convention-goers, big families, annual vacationers, and more… The website is so bad, people sometimes go to the Swiss or German rails websites just to know the timetables for French trains.

Even tickets themselves are a model of inefficiency: around Rhône-Alpes, there are usually two different format of tickets: IATA tickets, huge, with travel hours printed on them (even if your ticket might be valid for the whole day - or for three months), and small tickets that conform to some obscure ISO standard. IATA tickets have a magnetic stripe that seems perfectly useless (I’ve never seen anyone or anything read them), and ISO tickets are a pain to punch because you have to align them properly in the machine.

Talking about punching tickets - even though you usually purchase tickets only valid for a single travel on a specific time slice, you still have to punch them. Otherwise, you’ll get a fine, except if you show it to the controller on his first pass in the train. Of course, there are not always controlers, making “let’s not punch the ticket and see what happens” a national sport, for the times your ticket might be valid on other travels.

No two French stations look the same. In a typical one, there are at least three different ticket machines - more if you happen to be near a border with Switzerland, Germany or Belgium. One for regional ticket (all sorts of TERs), one for regular TGVs, one for professional TGVs. Some trains require you to sit at the exact spot you have reserved (at least a few days in advance), and don’t allow ticket cancellations.

How it should be

Compare this with Swiss trains: all train stations are exactly alike, with unified regulations, signs, a single tariff for short-distance or long-distance trains, only a few different subscriptions that make sense (and very reasonable for -26yo folks). Taking a train in Switzerland is no different from taking a bus - as a matter of fact, when you buy a general subscription (which means you can take every train ever in Switzerland anytime for a whole year), you also get to travel on almost all local bus networks.

When I finish my CS studies in Switzerland, I’m not sure I’ll return to France, if only for the trains. Thanks to the CFF, I can take the train several times per day, for work, leisure, sometimes both, whether I’m sleepy, drunk, or writing blogs posts, often without even checking timetables (trains are so frequent it’s useless), and never having to bother about reservations.