High-speed rail in France should be faster

In my previous post I wrote about my holiday in Biarritz, but I would like to reflect on the high-speed train I used to travel there separately.

First I used the tram and metro to travel from The Hague to Rotterdam. In Rotterdam I used the Thalys high-speed train to travel through Antwerp and Brussels to Paris, stopping at Gare du Nord. Not surprisingly, this station lies north of the center of Paris. Then it was necessary to travel with metro line 4 from Gare du Nord to Gare Montparnasse, which lies southwest of the center of Paris. There I used the TGV high-speed train to travel through Bordeaux, Dax and Bayonne before exiting the train at Biarritz.

Travel times are as follows:

  1. The leg between Rotterdam and Gare du Nord took 2:37 hours on the outward journey and 3:05 on the return journey.
  2. The transfer and waiting in Paris required 1:12 hours on the outward journey and 2:14 on the return journey.
  3. The leg between Gare Montparnasse and Biarritz took 4:16 hours on the outward journey and 4:13 on the return journey.

I noticed several things. The journey time between Rotterdam and Gare du Nord varies quite a bit. For some reason Google Maps suggests a trip which combines a different metro line with a bus, rather than just using metro line 4. The transfer with metro line 4 actually requires no more than 20 minutes for the metro itself and 20 minutes to get from the metro to the train stations. Especially on the return journey, a lot of time was wasted on the transfer. Unlike the TGV Euroduplex, the Thalys is not a double-deck train, so boarding is less efficient. Because the train is so long the passengers need more time to walk to their wagon on the platforms.

According to The Train Line, the distance between Rotterdam and Gare du Nord is 370 kilometers and the distance from Gare Montparnasse to Biarritz is 668 kilometers. The maximum speed of the TGV Euroduplex (on normal commercial routes) is 320 kilometers per hour, which the train did actually reach (it’s shown on the monitors in the train) between Paris and Bordeaux. The distance between Paris and Bordeaux is 499 kilometers and it takes the TGV Euroduplex on average 2:20 hours to cross this distance.

So with this information we can do some calculations on the average speed:

  1. Rotterdam to Paris: 141 km/h (assuming 2:37 travel time)
  2. Paris to Bordeaux: 214 km/h
  3. Bordeaux to Biarritz: 90 km/h (assuming 1:53 travel time)

It makes sense that Rotterdam to Paris is slower than Paris to Bordeaux because the former route has stops in Antwerp and Brussels, while the latter has none. But it doesn’t explain the entire difference. On the route, I noticed that the Thalys slows down significantly at certain parts in Belgium, not just the part of the route where it drives through Antwerp and Brussels where it might cause noise disturbance. The part between Bordeaux and Biarritz is pitifully slow, but that’s because the TGV is driving over ordinary rail there, not dedicated high speed rail.

The journey from Paris to Bordeaux is fast, but the entire journey is way too slow. If we want to reach our climate goals and convince the airline passengers to take the train, things have to be improved.

My improvement plan would look like this:

  1. Dump the Thalys and have a TGV Euroduplex (by the time this hypothetical plan is implemented more likely its successor, the Avelia Horizon) drive all the way from Amsterdam to destinations in France and further.
  2. Build a new TGV station for all TGV trains heading to Paris, so that a transfer to a different train station in Paris will no longer be necessary. This is already the case in Madrid, where a tunnel was constructed to connect the Chamartin and Atocha railway stations for high-speed trains. Such a dedicated TGV station should obviously be located on the outskirts of Paris and would necessarily require more time for passengers to transfer to the center of Paris in favor of faster TGV traffic around the city.
  3. Start with building high speed rail track from Bordeaux to the Spanish border sooner. Spain is already much closer to completing their high speed rail track to the French border (2023 compared to 2032). Progress on the the LGV Montpellier–Perpignan is even slower. That is the last gap of 150 kilometers on the Mediterranean side of France’s network to the Spanish border. It will be operational by 2040, which is downright shameful.
  4. Reduce the amount of stops after Bordeaux by removing the stop at Dax, which is just a small village with a population of little more than 20,000. Remove the stop at Biarritz as well, because Bayonne is larger and is very close to Biarritz anyway. These extra stops at small towns slow down the journey too much for little gain.

Let’s assume that all these measures are realized and that it’s possible to maintain an average speed of 200 km/h with the stops included. Assuming the distance between Amsterdam to Madrid on the rail network roughly equals their distance of 1.800 kilometers on the road network, travel by high-speed train could take just nine hours. It will surely be expensive, but it’s a matter of political will. Spain has already shown that it’s feasible because its high-speed rail network is much more extensive. Spain’s network is still being expanded significantly and swiftly, while France is lagging behind. If we want to be serious about excellent high-speed rail in France which can compete with air travel, it’s essential that these improvements are implemented.

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