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: