Fond Christmas memories are centered around trains, stretching from childhood right through 3 years ago when we sold our Atlanta house and all of its contents including the HO gauge model trains that Bill and I had collected over the years. The first engine I remember was a steam locomotive that even emitted puffs of white smoke for realism. That was followed by a bright yellow Union Pacific diesel. No smoke but the passenger cars came with interior lights that added one more touch of realism. When I got a job with British Rail, naturally we had to have our own version of the Flying Scotsman. It didn’t take long to add the Orient Express to our collection and once France became a yearly vacation destination we had a TGV. Who wouldn’t want a miniature version of a train capable in speed trials of going 574 km/hr (357 mph)? Every December we would set up the track around the base of the tree and then try to figure out how to fit all of those engines and cars into that little space. Now our hardest decision with life-size trains is where to go next.
Canadian blog reader Mike knows how much we enjoy riding the rails and suggested that a post about the pros and cons, the services available, the pricing, and the overall experience might be useful to other readers considering our favorite form of travel. When we were choosing a new town to call home in France, our spreadsheet of necessities within walking distance included items like a market, a river/canal/lake, shopping, and a train station. After all, if we were going to live without a car, literally everything had to be easy to get to on foot, and that is definitely the case in Carcassonne. We can now leisurely enjoy that second cup of coffee before leaving our house to show up as late as 2 minutes before the train departs and still be assured of a comfortable seat. It’s really that easy.
France has 3 types of trains: TGV for long distances at speeds up to 320 km/hr (200 mph) when traveling on dedicated tracks; Intercities also for long distances but at slower speeds, and TER regional services to fill in the gaps for local destinations but still with a speed around 160 km/hr (100 mph). We find all of them comfortable, convenient, and generally on-time. In First Class (see below why we usually sit there) there are wide reclining seats with lots of legroom but even on the local trains where only 2nd class is available, we don’t feel cramped, especially since those tend to be shorter journeys.
French residents have a range of discount cards available to them that makes tickets quite affordable. Our Senior Plus card gives us 40 percent off the normal First Class fare plus food and drink savings as well. The best long distance fares are available 3 months in advance and we budget around 200 euros per person round trip and less for shorter journeys, all in First Class comfort. Destinations within our own region of Occitanie that cost 1 euro per ticket are released 3 weeks in advance.
Even with 3000 stations connected by 29,000 kilometers (18,000 miles) of tracks within France, we can’t always get to every destination we might want to see. Once we get into the general area by train we can take a local bus or we can rent a car but then you can’t stretch out and enjoy your lunch or wine as the beautiful scenery passes by the window. Industrial action (aka “strikes”) can really mess up your plans if you are flying across from the US and every day of your vacation is accounted for. When you retire here, however, although it’s still a nuisance, it’s much easier to work around any interruptions in service.
We moved to this part of France to have easy access to the rest of Europe by train. We can quickly book our tickets online, take our picnic with us or buy it onboard in the café/bar car, read a book or listen to music while enjoying a glass of wine, then walk to our hotel from the station in our destination city. It’s all about comfort and we find plenty of that aboard the trains.
Some helpful links:
SNCF (French trains) official website in English: https://en.oui.sncf/en/
1 euro tickets in Occitanie: https://www.ter.sncf.com/occitanie
Rail information from The Man in Seat 61: https://www.seat61.com/
YouTube video (9 min.) of TGV speed trial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfll-5h6Rg8