Rail transport in France

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Rail transport in France
TGV at Gare de l'Est in Paris.
National railwaySNCF
Infrastructure companySNCF Réseau
Major operatorsThalys, TGV Lyria, Eurostar, RATP, Elipsos, ECR
Ridership1.762 billion (2017, SNCF[1] and RATP sections of RER[2])
Passenger km100.2 billion (2017)[1][2]
Freight33.6 billion tonne-km (2017, SNCF and competitors[3])
System length
Total29,901 kilometres (18,580 mi) [4]
Double track16,445 km (10,218 mi)
Electrified15,140 km (9,410 mi)
High-speed2,734 km (1,699 mi) (dedicated);
929 km (577 mi) (upgraded)
Track gauge
Main1,435 mm (4 ft 8+12 in) standard gauge
High-speed1,435 mm (4 ft 8+12 in)
25 kV AC9,113 km (5,663 mi)
1.5 kV DC5,905 km (3,669 mi)
other122 km (76 mi)
No. tunnels1,300[5]
Tunnel length540 km (340 mi)
Longest tunnel50.5 km (31.4 mi) (Channel Tunnel)
Longest bridge2.178 km (1.353 mi) (Saint-André-de-Cubzac bridge)
No. stations3,054 (2009).[6]
Highest elevation1,593m (Yellow Train)

Rail transport in France is marked by a clear predominance of passenger traffic, driven in particular by high-speed rail. The SNCF, the national state-owned railway company, operates most of the passenger and freight services on the national network managed by its subsidiary SNCF Réseau. France currently operates the second-largest European railway network, with a total of 29,901 kilometres of railway.[4]

The first railway line in the country opened in 1827 from Saint-Étienne to Andrézieux. The network has undergone a major modernization since 1981 with the arrival of the TGV high-speed rail service which has been consistently expanded in subsequent years.

In 2017, there were 1.762 billion journeys on the French national rail network, among which 1.270 billion on SNCF services[1] and 493 million on RATP sections of the RER,[2] the express regional network operating in the Paris area which is shared between both companies. The Paris suburban rail services represents alone 82% of the French rail annual ridership.[1][2]

With a total of 100.2 billion passenger-kilometres,[1][2] France has the fifth-most used passenger network worldwide, and second-most used in Europe after that of Russia.[7] France is a member of the International Union of Railways (UIC). The UIC country code for France is 87.

At the same time, only 9% of French cargo is shipped via railway, or about ½ of the European average, and only a small fraction when compared to certain countries.

National and regional services (TER) are complemented by an important network of urban railways which is still rapidly growing. Six cities are served by metro systems (Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Paris, Rennes and Toulouse), while 31 metropolitan areas are additionally served by tram networks, among which 23 were inaugurated in the 21st century.

France was ranked 7th among national European rail systems in the 2017 European Railway Performance Index for intensity of use, quality of service and safety performance, a decrease from previous years.[8]


In 1814, the French engineer Pierre Michel Moisson-Desroches proposed to the Emperor Napoleon to build seven national railways from Paris, in order to travel "short distances within the Empire".

However, the history of railways in France really begins in 1827, when the first trains operated on the Saint-Etienne to Andrezieux Railway, the first French line, granted by order of King Louis XVIII in 1823.


Since Legrand Star rail plan [fr] of 1842, French railways are highly focused on Paris.

Traffic is concentrated on the main lines: 78% of activity is done on 30% of the network (8,900 km), and the 46% of smaller lines (13,600 km) only drive 6% of the traffic.[9] The 366 largest stations (12%) account for 85% of passenger activity, and the smallest 56% of stations take only 1.7% of traffic.[10]

Freight transport[edit]

Freight transport has declined since the early 1980s.[11] Today the network is predominantly passenger-centric; railways transport only 9% of French cargo, or about 1/2 of the European average,[12] and less than a fourth of the US railways' share of US cargo.[13]

Since 1 January 2007, the freight market has been open to conform to European Union agreements (EU Directive 91/440). New operators had already reached 15% of the market at the end of 2008.[14]

Passenger transport[edit]

Short and middle distance[edit]

The Transport express régional (TER) is directed by the administrative Regions of France. They contract with the SNCF for lines exploitation.

Long distance[edit]

The SNCF directly manage this class of trains. The TGV is used on the most important destinations, while Intercités carriages are still used for other lines.


The French railway network, as administered by SNCF Réseau, as of June 2007, is a network of commercially usable lines of 29,213 kilometres (18,152 mi), of which 15,141 km (9,408 mi) is electrified. 1,876 km (1,166 mi) of those are high speed lines (LGV), 16,445 km (10,218 mi) dispose of two or more tracks. 5,905 km (3,669 mi) are supplied with 1,500 V DC, 9,113 km (5,663 mi) with 25 kV AC at 50 Hz. 122 km (76 mi) are electrified by third rail or other means.[4]

Regional train at Gare de l'Est in Paris.
Gare Saint Lazare in Paris.

1,500 V is used on the south, and HSR lines and the northern part of the country use 25 kV electrification.

Trains drive on the left, except in Alsace and Moselle where tracks were first constructed while those regions were part of Germany.

Rail links to adjacent countries[edit]

Bayeux station in the Normandy region.

Current status[edit]

French regional train in Strasbourg.

The French non-TGV intercity service (TET) is in decline, with old infrastructure and trains. The French government is planning to remove the monopoly that rail currently has on long-distance journeys by letting coach operators compete.[15]

Travel to the UK through the Channel Tunnel has grown in recent years, and from May 2015 passengers have been able to travel direct to Marseille, Avignon and Lyon. Eurostar is also introducing new Class 374 trains and refurbishing the current Class 373s.

The International Transport Forum described the current status of the French railways in their paper "Efficiency indicators of Railways in France":[16]

  • The success of the TGV is undeniable (Crozet 2013). Work started in September 1975 on the first high-speed rail (HSR) line, between Paris and Lyon, and it was inaugurated in September 1981. New high-speed lines were opened in 1989 (towards the south-west), in 1993 (towards the north), etc. The high-speed network extent was 2,600 km in 2017, after the opening of four new lines.
  • The regionalisation of intercity and local services was tested in 1997 and fully deployed in the early 2000s. Since then, TERs (regional express trains) have seen traffic rise steeply (50% between 2000 and 2013) as, to a lesser extent, have services in the Ile de France region (25%).
  • Rail freight has been far less successful. The French network carried 55 billion tonne-km in 2001, but this figure scarcely reached 32 billion tonne-km in 2013. This weak performance contrasts sharply with the ambitious public policy of the last fifteen years. The Grenelle Environment Forum (2007–2010) oversaw the deployment of a costly freight plan that was no more effective than its predecessors.
TGV and regional train in Nantes station.


Like roads, the French railways receive rail subsidies from the state in order to operate. Those amounted to €13.2 billion in 2013.[16]

Subsidy per passenger journey for UK, Germany, Spain, Italy and France in Euros


Alstom is the manufacturer of the TGV, and is behind many regional train models (Régiolis, SNCF Class Z 26500 ... )

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Memento statistiques SNCF Mobilités 2017" (PDF). La Plaine Saint-Denis, France: SNCF Mobilités. 2017. p. 14. Retrieved 2 May 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Trafic annuel et journalier" (XLS). Paris, France: Observatoire de la mobilité en Île-de-France (Omnil). 2017. Retrieved 2 May 2019.
  3. ^ "Memento statistiques SNCF Mobilités 2017" (PDF). La Plaine Saint-Denis, France: SNCF Mobilités. 2017. p. 39. Retrieved 2 May 2019.
  4. ^ a b c RFF Website "Network inventory" Archived 5 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ "Rapport sur la sécurité des tunnels routiers et ferroviaires francais". www.assemblee-nationale.fr.
  6. ^ La Gare Contemporaine Archived 20 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine p94, Fabienne Keller
  7. ^ "Transport – Passenger transport – OECD Data". OECD.
  8. ^ "the 2017 European Railway Performance Index". Boston Consulting Group. 8 January 2021.
  9. ^ Audit sur l'état du réseau national français p3 Archived 15 December 2010 at the Wayback Machine, Robert Rivier & Yves Putallaz, 2005 September 7
  10. ^ Gares et Connexion[permanent dead link] p20
  11. ^ Pourquoi le fret ferroviaire va-t-il si mal en France? Autour du plan Véron (Fret 2006) Pierre Zembri 2004
  12. ^ Antoine Boudet; Lionel Steinmann (27 July 2020). "L'Etat une énième fois au chevet du fret ferroviaire". Les Echos (France) (in French). Retrieved 13 April 2021. C'est, d'ailleurs, partant du constat que la part de marché du fret ferroviaire en France n'a cessé de s'éroder au profit du transport routier de marchandises, pour tomber à 9 %, soit cinq fois moins qu'en 1974 et environ la moitié de la moyenne européenne
  13. ^ Michael Grunwald (9 July 2012). "Back on Tracks". Time. Retrieved 13 April 2021. our freight rail is the envy of the world, carrying over 40% of our intercity cargo
  14. ^ "La libéralisation des transports ferroviaires dans l'Union européenne". www.senat.fr.
  15. ^ "France's loss-making inter-city services at a crossroads".
  16. ^ a b "Efficiency indicators of Railways in France" (PDF).

External links[edit]