Friday, 1 February 2013

Things I like, no. 1: the SNCF

For some reason, I seem to like writing blog posts on the train. In fact, I'm doing that right now, speeding along towards Paris in the first step of getting home for a couple of days. I just feel generally more productive while travelling, perhaps because it makes me feel like one of those suited-up businessmen, refusing to waste a single moment of my precious time. (Let's not mention how much of my time I do waste when I'm not on the train.) Or perhaps it's just because, quite simply, the French railways are good places to get work done.

Okay, so that last point might need some explaining. I'm used to National Rail: perfectly serviceable, of course, but not exactly conducive to relaxing and enjoying yourself. If you've gone into London from Reading at any point, ever, you'll know about the challenges of finding a seat. Coming to France, I expected something more or less the same. What I found, though, was altogether different. Different, and if I dare say it ... better. In some ways, at least. If you can spare me a few minutes of your precious time, I'll justify my opinions (to quote the GCSE French marking scheme). Part 1 of this new mini-series, then, on things about France that I like: ladies and gentlemen, the Société nationale des chemins de fer français.

The SNCF logo. This one is the newest version, with a
couple of changes from the one before it: for the graphic
design nerds, try to spot the three main differences ...
(Old version here)
When it comes to why I like the SNCF, the name itself is a good place to start. Unlike in the UK, every aspect of the railway system is nationalised, including both the tracks and the trains. And the system works, too. Fares (which I'll come onto in more detail in a minute) are by and large less expensive than in the UK, and recent projects like the construction of the TGV-Est line out towards Strasbourg have made the French very proud of their railway company. Of course, they get private companies to do things like their graphic design work, but almost everything else is 100% owned by the French government. At the risk of generalising a little too much, it taps into that spirit of solidarity that I find to be so strong in France, encompassing as it does everything from the numerous mutuelles that offer personal and professional support to the adorable signs on the buses in Reims that advise you to give up your seat par solidarité ou par courtoisie.

Because it's state-owned, the government retains control over fares, which in turn means that some of the reductions they are able to offer are superb. One of the SNCF's slogans is une carte de réduction pour chacun, meaning that everyone is able to make some kind of saving with a savings card. In my case, it's a Carte jeune, which guarantees me at least 25% off all my train travel. If you book far enough ahead, the savings are ridiculous: €28 return between Reims and Paris, anyone? It gets better, though: that was in first class. The SNCF appears to have adopted the attitude that first class should be accessible to everyone, rather than using it as a tool to leech money out of commuters. Very often, first class tickets only cost a couple of euros more than standard class; occasionally, due to the mechanics of my Carte jeune, they're actually cheaper. For comparative purposes, I went and did a little bit of research into the price of equivalent journeys in France and the UK. Booking one day in advance and using a young person's railcard, a first-class ticket from Reading to London Paddington (30 minutes) is £41. Do the same thing in France (over a slightly longer journey, 45 minutes from Reims to Paris Est) and it's €25 (£21, or almost half the price).

But the best part of the SNCF is probably the trains themselves. There are so many charming things about a train journey in France that I couldn't possibly list all of them, but personal favourites include the flat caps worn by the ticket inspectors; the wifi that, even if you don't buy access, will still show you your destination and time of arrival when you open a web browser; and, most notably of all, the sheer speed of the things. The TGV (Trains à grande vitesse) is the national high-speed rail network, which regularly reaches speeds of up to 330 km/h on the Reims / Paris line (trust me: it literally just happened). The TER (Transport express régional) system is not as quick, obviously, but it still takes a surprisingly short amount of time to get to Épernay from Reims. And the time spent on the train is made all the more pleasant by the voitures themselves: there's always a spare seat, and even second class is likely to have a power point near to your seat. First class is quite the experience : you can lounge over seats big enough to accommodate a family of four, and handy screens show you how far away you are from your destination.

Now, I'm not saying that the SNCF is perfect. Of course, it has its problems: like any rail operator, it faces challenges with track maintenance, and recent reforms in its loyalty card structure have riled a few people. In light of all its positives, though, I'm far more likely to forgive its foibles than I am with Network Rail. So as the train glides into Paris Est, I'll leave you with this, a fitting tribute to the single-bar ditty that's heard from Calais to Montpellier:



15 comments:

  1. Wow, it's so pleasant to read a nice article about the SNCF (the F actually stands for français, because for an unknown reason, "de fer" isn't in the acronym. The Belgian system is SNCB). Usually, French people complain about prices, numerous strikes and all that, but it's nice to have a different perspective. Especially about the prices. I knew UK train tickets were expensive but I didn't think it was way more than our tickets.
    Thanks for that. =) (Also, TER actually stands for Transport/Train Express Régional)

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    1. Hmm, interesting! To be honest, I suspect that it's just a national pastime to moan about one's own railway services ... Making the final part of the journey home today, though, I definitely felt a difference between the way English and French railway worked. Everything felt a bit more rushed in the UK, from the struggle to find a seat to the agonising wait before the platform's announced. As for prices, they are objectively more expensive in the UK; that said, it's still perfectly possible to make good savings (if you book far enough in advance ...)

      Thanks for the corrections, too: I've fixed the dodgy acronyms!

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  2. Inevitably, I can’t resist a comment! Yes, the S.N.C.F. is ruthlessly efficient, as the trains pounding over Meudon’s viaduct prove. The French have put effort into the most intelligent means of transport in existence, and who would expect otherwise?

    I think there are two essential differences between the French and British railways. The first is that we in Britain have suffered from having invented the railways and made the mistakes that come with being first. We had the railway mania, in which lines were built all over the place and according to no particular plan, and (for example) we built all of our bridges and tunnels too low and narrow. (That trains can run at 125 m.p.h. on the East Coast Main Line built in the 1840s is a testament to the genius of those first engineers).

    The second difference was more obvious when British Rail and the S.N.C.F. could be compared directly. British Government after British Government persists in the belief that railways can be made profitable, something which proved difficult even in the nineteenth century. For this reason, they subsidised the losses of British Rail only grudgingly, Dr.Beeching thought wrongly that letting half the network go to rot in the 1960s would help the remainder pay, we have had continually to pare down infrastructure and rolling-stock, and of course privatisation was considered a sensible idea.

    The French in their perennial wisdom regard the railways as a service rather than a business to be made to pay. Much money is therefore lavished on the network: on trackwork, on stations, on rolling stock. Civil engineering tasks which would be the subject of perpetual agonising in Britain are ‘just got on with’ in France (I wonder how that would be translated!). That is how they have built these tremendous high-speed lines (LGV) without a second thought.

    A final thought: the French are certainly proud of their railways, but do they love them as do the British? The British railways are beloved for being a glorious shambles, for the old bridges and tunnels which have not been replaced with concrete, for the stations which have no reason to exist, for the quirks and quaintness at every turn. Or is that just me?

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    1. As ever, I agree with both your points! While it's mightily impressive that we can run trains at 125mph on tracks that are almost two centuries old, having this history does hold us back on occasion. Your description of the railways as a 'service' for the public good is also spot on, and contrasts nicely with the confusing UK situation: am I right in thinking that the tracks are nationalised, but the trains themselves aren't? And if so, doesn't that mean that the state in the UK has to make all the expenditure, but without getting any of the income?

      When it comes to France, though, I think they've got it about right. If it is indeed impossible to make a good railway service finance itself, then the state should step in to cover the cost: after all, that's what we pay taxes for.

      And yes, you make another good point about the love for the railways. In spite of all its wonderful efficiency, it is quite hard to love the SNCF for being quaint ...

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    2. What is nationalised, and what is privatised, is very complicated... And I am no expert!
      I am fairly sure that National Rail, which is in charge of most of the track and the infrastructure, is owned by the Government. The 'Train Operating Companies' (e.g. First Great Western) have nothing to do with engineering, but bid for different franchises, which are various regions or routes into which British Rail was divided in the 1990s. These companies, many of which are in turn owned by foreign companies (including the S.N.C.F.), must run (and maintain, or even purchase) the trains, and are responsible for most of the stations, as well. But it is complicated because most of these T.O.C.s rent the trains from separate companies altogether - and as for sorting out who gets how much money at stations used by several companies... I have no idea!

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  3. To a fellow Francophile, how happy I am to stumble upon your blog! I'll be sure to take a look around.

    I'm traveling once again to France this summer, and this time would like to purchase a "Carte jeune" from SNCF (I'm a 22-year-old American), but a US address is incompatible with the online form (as is a U.K. address). C'est bizarre.

    How did you manage to get your card? (Did you enter a French address?)

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    1. Hi Elaine! Sorry for just seeing this - I don't get notified automatically when someone posts a comment, so it's sometimes a case of pot-luck as to whether I see new comments or not! Hope I've not left it too late for you.

      I picked up my 'Carte Jeune' after I arrived in France, and used the address of my accommodation in France. Brits can buy them from within the UK by getting in touch with Rail Europe, the SNCF's UK representative, using this link. However, the US site for Rail Europe (link here) doesn't seem to make any reference to it, which makes me think that the card isn't available for Americans. This seems particularly plausible given as how the small print in some of the passes advertised to US citizens make it clear that Europeans can't use them ...

      So in summary, you could either wait until you arrive in France, or try one of the passes mentioned on Rail Europe USA. (Or failing that, you might just have to give them a ring ...) I hope you have a lovely time in France this summer; mind if I ask where you'll be visiting?

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    2. Wow, Edward- I'm so impressed that you did such thorough research! Thank you for your reply! Yes, from all the searching I've done on all the European train websites, I can't find a way to purchase the card while abiding strictly by the rules (though nowhere is it stated that Americans are barred from this privilege; RailEurope would rather we pay the higher rates, of course.) Perhaps I'll use the address of my friend in Paris... wish me luck!

      This summer I'll be in the UK, France, Spain, and Ukraine: walking the 800-km Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage in Spain, seeing old friends, beekeeping, and volunteer farming in England and France. (If you're at all interested in this sort of work, I highly recommend WWOOFing! see www.wwoof.org.uk and www.wwoof.fr ) Oh, and I should add to the list: "dusting off my French vocabulary/grammar skills after a year's disuse"!

      Your English-teaching work sounds incredibly fun and challenging. (In the US we typically only are allowed a half-year abroad, so I am a bit jealous of your full year!) How are you finding it? The French conversation class at my school was always taught by a French exchange student; I always wondered what it would be like on "the other side of the desk"...

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    3. No problem :) Good luck with getting the railcard, although I should warn you that you also need to provide a photo and your nationality ... Where are you going in the UK? And volunteer farming - wow! Sounds specific, but an awful lot of fun. I hope you enjoy the camino de Santiago: I've been to Santiago de Compostela once, and it's absolutely lovely.

      As for the English teaching work, it's good fun - although my contract is now over, since it's only seven months long (see future posts for more on that!). But it's been very enjoyable, as I said, and I feel like I've learnt a lot. particularly when it comes to telling off students in French ...

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