Passenger Rail? The French Have It Figured Out.

Compared to many of my previous journeys, there has been very little in the way of train travel so far. But I have been reminded once again how extensive and how convenient the French SNCF system really is.

My trip from Paris to Brive-la-Gaillarde was by train, the same one all the way, and the journey took about four-and-a-half hours. My only complaint was that my assigned seat was facing to the rear … I was riding backwards. Most people don’t care; unfortunately, I do. All things considered, however, that was really minor.

The return trip — from Brive-la-Gaillarde to Tours — took place on a Saturday which, I gather, was the reason my trip was broken in the middle at Chateauroux, where I was switched from the train to a bus. It was big and it was comfortable … but it was a bus. However, if anything, that just underscores the point that the French system is organized and convenient. 

While waiting for my train at Brive on my return trip, several of the local trains came and went, including two or thee of their very nice diesel-powered units. I didn’t have access to the track it was on, but I had seen one up close on my way down. They are beautifully designed, with clear plexiglass partitions dividing the interior of the car into different sections. There are eight or ten rows of seats in a conventional two-and-two configuration, but then it may change to a three-and-one arrangement.

(Apologies: I had photos — I really did! —  but have just discovered that they have been mysteriously deleted. Damn!)

Another few feet and you take a couple of steps down to a slightly lower level and it’s almost like entering a lounge. Seats are fixed in place, but they’re in what actually creates the feeling of an informal arrangement. The lighting adds to that: it’s mostly indirect, but some actually comes from modern-looking lamps fixed to the walls between windows. 

The point is, the French SNCF operates quite a variety of equipment — from the bi-level TGV whisking you between major cities at 200 miles-per-hour, to conventional intercity trains like the one that took me from Paris to Brive, to these small self-powered units transporting fewer people to and from the very small towns and villages.

Bottom line: in France, trains will take you from almost anywhere to almost anywhere, quickly, comfortably and on time. Gee … if the  dad-gummed French can do it, you’d think we could get a few more trains running to a few more places in our country. I mean what’s the use of having all this American Exceptionalism lying around if we don’t put it to use?