The Saint-Étienne to Andrézieux Railway was the first railway company in France to be authorized by royal decree in 1823. The line began operating in 1827 transporting goods and progressed to offering rail travel in France passenger carrying services in 1835. The line ran from Saint-Étienne, an important coal and iron industry center to Lyon, which at the time was considered the main town in the south of France.
Despite this auspicious start it took a further decade for the development of the railway system for rail travel in France to progress to a national scale. This delay was mainly due to the Napoleonic wars along with the limited iron industry in the country necessitating the need to import, at high cost, many of the iron rails from England. There was also a great deal of opposition from the parties that governed and operated the water-borne transport systems. The long established canals, river and coastal shipping links looked to some as if this new rail system may provide a serious threat to their interests. As the development depended on Government initiatives, this opposition, though led by a minority, was enough to hinder its progress. However, eventually through the collaboration of the government and private companies, the network grew and by 1914 the railway system had become one of the most highly developed in the world consisting of around 60,000 km.
Competition from the increased popularity of road usage in the 1930s saw the private railway operators struggling financially and in 1938 the socialist government made the decision to fully nationalize the railway system and hence Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais (SNCF) was borne.
Today, France has the second largest European railway network operating a total of 29,901 Kilometres of railway. This includes the highly recognised high speed TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) lines linking France’s most populated areas with Paris and the Channel Tunnel, linking France with the UK.
Main TGV lines in France
TGV Nord, Thalys and Eurostar
This line links Paris Gare du Nord with Arras, Lille, Calais, Brussels (Bruxelles-Midi), Amsterdam, Cologne and, via the Channel Tunnel, Ashford, Ebbsfleet and London St Pancras.
LGV Est Européene
Connects Paris Gare de l’Est with Reims, Nancy, Metz, Strasbourg, Zurich and Germany, including Frankfurt and Stuttgart. The super high speed track stretches as far east as Strasbourg.
TGV Sud-Est and TGV Midi-Méditerranée
Linking Paris Gare de Lyon with the southeast including Dijon, Lyon, Geneva, the Alps, Avignon, Marseille, Nice and Montpellier.
TGV Atlantique Sud-Ouest and TGV Atlantique Ouest
Links Paris Gare Montparnasse with western and southwestern France including Brittany (Rennes, Brest, Quimper), Tours, Nantes, Poitiers, La Rochelle, Bordeaux, Biarritz and Toulouse.
A High-speed rail route bypassing Paris altogether in its bid to better link the provinces. Six services a day speed between Strasbourg and Lyon with most continuing south to Marseille or Montpellier, on the Mediterranean.
Regional Services are operated by the conseil régional (regional local authorities) of France. These services are known as TER (Transport Express Regional) and control a network serving twenty French regions and carrying over 80,000 passengers a day.
The Île-de-France region boasts its own suburban railway service branded as Transilien and departs from Paris’ main railway and RER (Réseau Express Régional) stations. The RER is a commuter rapid transit system serving Paris and its suburbs. For information on routes and train times please visit Transilien
The cities of Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Paris, Rennes and Toulouse all provide their own underground service known as the Metro.
Tickets for travelling on the SNCF network can be purchased at the station of departure or online from Voyages-SNCF. Once you have made your reservation online your ticket can be collected from the ticket office or station ticket machine using your chosen payment card. Before you board your train you will need to validate your ticket by time stamping it in a composteur, a yellow post usually located en route to the platform. If you are unable to do this for any reason then it is advisable to find a conductor on the train and explain that you were unable to validate your ticket as non-validation can lead to a fine.
Rail travel in France can be expensive but there are many discounts available and further information can be obtained from station staff or from the SNCF website.
The latest information on service disruptions can be found on SNCF InfoLignes
French railway network search map
To help you find a French railway station in your area of interest, use our map below by entering a town/postcode and a distance area. If your search doesn’t show any results broaden it to the next distance setting.