Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A major new investment makes clear: It’s not all about Paris anymore.
France’s high-speed rail network is about to get a massive expansion.
On Tuesday, the government of President Emmanuel Macron announced a €13.4 billion ($15.5 billion) injection of funds into the high-speed TGV network, with work due to be staggered over the next decade. This increase of 44 percent on the previous government’s investments will deliver five new high-speed links, connections that have long been suggested and now have their funds confirmed and first steps agreed to.
The new links will connect fresh destinations at a maximum speed of up to 173.5 miles (279.3 kilometers) per hour, and their locations reveal a clear new sense of direction. Of the five links, only one connects directly to Paris.
This is, by and large, new. Until now, almost all projects for the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, which translates simply as “high-speed train”) have been about connecting the French capital with the regions. The first link, between Paris and Lyon, opened in 1983, and ever since, the TGV map has resembled a spider with thin, spindly legs of high-speed track extending out from a body located in Paris.
Just two lines so far have bucked the trend. One is a short 1994 Paris bypass link that allows trains to cross France from south to north (and on to Belgium and the U.K.) without being obliged to stop at a Parisian terminus. The other is Northeastern France’s Rhine-Rhone link, opened in 2011, which still hosts services to Paris that continue on at slower speeds on regular tracks, and will likely be extended to the capital at a later date.
By contrast, the five new links are scattered across the map. There’s still one to Paris in there, a relatively short line between the capital and the Normandy port of Le Havre, where work will begin with the extension of Paris’s Saint Lazare Station. Further south, an important fast link will be built between Bordeaux and Toulouse, cities with a combined metro area population of 2.5 million. The city of Montpellier will see its TGV line extended to the southern border city of Perpignan, ultimately facilitating a much faster service south to the Barcelona region, with which Perpignan is already linked by high-speed rail.
Further west, along the coast, work will start on a line from Marseille to Nice, France’s fifth largest city. There’s a final link in France’s northern provinces, one that should actually reduce rail traffic to the city of Paris—a service linking Amiens and other northern cities directly with Charles de Gaulle Airport, reducing Paris proper’s role as a gateway (and bottleneck) to the region. Elsewhere, an upgrade to the (non-TGV) line between Paris and Limoges should cut the journey time by 25 minutes.
To Americans used to rattling slowly along a limited network in Amtrak trains that resemble battered soup cans, this level of commitment seems truly impressive, and it is. But with relatively high prices for high-speed tickets, the TGV expansion is inevitably a case in which national tax money is dispersed to a service that remains out of reach for many. Perhaps reflecting an awareness of this, the national carrier SNCF has also announced another scheme this week—a major enlargement of its low-cost, high-speed service, Ouigo.
As CityLab has reported, Ouigo offers substantially cheaper high-speed services that cut costs by mainly relying on suburban stations, ditching first-class or buffet cars, and selling tickets online only. Those suburban stations undercut their convenience somewhat, but the prices are irresistible. Since Ouigo launched in 2013, 65 percent of its 33 million passengers to date paid €25 or less for an intercity trip. Now SNCF plans to double Ouigo’s ridership, increasing passenger numbers to 26 million annually by 2021. In doing so, they’re making a new departure. While their Paris terminuses have so far been in the suburbs, next month, they’ll begin departing from the central Gare de Lyon.
This extension is a risk—to date, Ouigo has not yet made a profit—but it shows nonetheless that France is thinking hard about ways to make its high-speed network truly affordable. That alone is worthy of praise.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that TGV services to Montpellier started this year.