Paris-Nice, France, via the High Speed Railway
March 16-20, 2007
My wife Jody and I recently went to Paris to visit our daughter Jeanette who is studying there. For my birthday on March 19th wife and daughter gave me a trip to Nice on the fabled French Riviera. To satisfy this hard-core rail fan, they gave up travel via RyanAir or EasyJet for the French TGV (train à grande vitesse, French for "high-speed train") rail system. Because of my senior status, 2nd class round trip tickets for Jody and me cost only 154 Euros ($203 at the prevailing exchange rate).
Our trip began at the Lyon Station (Gare de Lyon) with 45 minutes to spare so I could train watch. TGV passengers wait in a separate underground area that was sterile and uninteresting. So I headed up to the magnificent old main station with its open spaces and high arched roof. The main concourse was a mad house of hundreds or maybe thousands of passengers coming and going as all manner of trains came and went. It looked like a big city US rail station in the early 1950s. We saw the same thing in Germany last year so rail travel seems alive and well in Western Europe.
At 4:30PM we boarded Nice-bound TGV 06181. Our train-set was a TGV Reseau, one of 6 types built since 1981. The Reseau features a power car at each end with two 1st class and six 2nd class articulated coaches in between containing 377 seats. Half of one car is a café-bar. Train-sets can be coupled to double capacity. In France TGVs run on AC current of 25 kV,50 Hz. However, many power-cars are bi or tri current capable in order to operate in neighboring countries.
At 4:55 (2 minutes late) our train started for Nice. Shortly after leaving the station tracks, we entered the Mediterranean high speed line (LGV Mediterranee) to Marseilles and accelerated. The allowed top speed of 186 MPH was maintained much of the way to our first stop at Avignon in southern France where a new TGV-only station sits on the outskirts. After Avignon, high speed resumed to Marseilles where we arrived at 8:10PM. A Google map search indicates Paris to Marseilles highway mileage is 776 km. (481 miles). The estimated driving time is 6 hours 57 minutes. Our train did the journey in 3 hours and 15 minutes.
From Marseille the train used conventional tracks at 70 to 80 MPH between stations. After stops in Toulon, Cannes and Antibes we arrived at Nice station at 9:55PM. Google shows 932 km or 575 miles from Paris to Nice with an estimated driving time of 8 hours and 21 minutes. We made it in 5 hours.
The trip itself was smooth and uneventful. Paris-bound trains whizzed past every 15 or 20 minutes. Wikipedia says the grade-crossing-free TGV tracks are anchored by deeper than normal ballast and more concrete ties per kilometer. In addition, the radii of curves are larger so trains can go faster without increasing centrifugal force on passengers. The big electric motors that produce high speed allow the trains to easily surmount stiff grades of up to 3.5%.
Our 2nd class seats were similar to 1970s economy airline seats and thus moderately comfortable for me personally. Virtually every seat was taken between Paris and Marseille where about half the passengers disembarked and a smaller number boarded. It was dark when we reached the Mediterranean and the best scenery.
There was no dining car. Instead, a café-bar, manned by a friendly, helpful attendant, featured a few hot meals and a fair number of sandwiches and snacks. It was operated by the Wagon Lit company founded in the 19th century to provide sleeping car and food service in Europe. We ate sandwiches and deserts that were well above average and shared a bottle of red wine. If the food and service encountered on both trips is typical, Amtrak could do worse than contract lounge and dining services to Wagon-Lit.
Oddly, no one ever came into our car to check tickets. Near the end of our trip I saw what appeared to be a conductor schmoozing folks in the café-bar.
Our 4 days in Nice and environs were delightful. The weather was cool and sunny-great for walking/sightseeing. The city's setting between the sea and mountains is spectacular. The extensive touristic seaside changes as you walk to scenes reminiscent of Atlantic City, and then to Palm Beach-sort of. Until 1860 Nice was Italian. This is reflected in the warm demeanor of the people, the fine Italian food and the old town which could have been in Rome.
We spent one day in Antibes about 20 miles west of Nice. During the daytime commuter buses leave Nice every 15 minutes for Antibes and Cannes. The fare to anywhere along the route is only 1.30 Euros. Our bus made stops every 3 or 4 blocks along the urbanized route and took almost 70 minutes to reach Antibes. Because of this we took a regional train back to Nice that cost 4 Euros apiece but took only 15 minutes. Antibes is smaller with a medieval-like old town that was cozy and user-friendly. If I lived in the area I'd reside in Antibes and party in Nice.
A desk clerk in our hotel said Spring and Fall are the best times to visit the Riviera, Summer bringing unending streams of restless tourists and traffic gridlock. During Summer, he said the TGV system may be sold out 2 weeks in advance or more. The conventional Corail trains are said to be comfortable but take up to 8 hours. I learned too late that a narrow-gauge train leaves Nice every morning and winds into the mountains stopping at "quaint" relatively unspoiled villages. Knowledgeable tourists and railfans ride with locals for the scenery and the experience. Next time.
On our trip back to Paris we left at 7:08AM on TGV 06172-another Reseau type. This enabled us to see much of the Mediterranean coastline up to Toulon. Our coach seats were worn and torn though still comfortable enough. Daughter Jeanette left a day earlier and rode in a newer double-deck train called TGV Duplex. She said it was the best yet.
From Marseille onward a toddler nearby looked out the window and screamed at everything he saw. When his mother tried to shush him he got mad and screamed louder. The train was full so we couldn't move. He finally fell asleep at 12:30PM as the train pulled into the Gare de Lyon. On the plus side we enjoyed a very good breakfast courtesy of Wagon-Lit.
The French rail system, known by the acronym SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Franšais), has an English language website where one may buy tickets. Every time I checked, special discounts were featured. Thus I found a fare of 15 Euros one way for travel between Paris and Strasbourg or Paris and Limoges. Unless one plans a lot of traveling between countries, buying tickets on this or other national rail websites is cheaper than purchasing a 3 or 5 day railpass. The German system (Deutsche Bahn AG, Deutsche Bahn Holding; abbreviated DB AG, DBAG or simply DB) has similar bargains.
Last year we frequented the ICE (InterCityExpress) trains of the German High Speed system. The new 2nd generation ICE trains are among the most elegant and comfortable trains I have ever ridden.
Shortly after our return to the USA, the media reported a test TGV on the new Paris-Strasbourg line hit 574.8kph (357mph) for the fastest wheel on rail run yet. A Chinese mag-lev train holds the overall record of 580km ph. I believe Amtrak's fastest time is 150mph on parts of the Northeast corridor.
A new Franco-German high speed line reportedly may enable speeds of 250mph.
As I write this CNBC reports gasoline hit $8 a gallon in the UK. How high would it have to go here to "incentivise" true high speed corridor trains?