An overview of the French trains

Lizet Wesselman - 23/11/2023

An overview of the French trains

Lizet Wesselman - 23/11/2023

The French train network is one of the best train networks in Europe, although it may be a little challenging to navigate at first. This is because there are different train operators who run different train routes in France. But it doesn’t have to be difficult. Here I explain to you exactly how French trains work.

Different train companies in France

In most countries, including France, they have different types of trains, such as the regional train or the intercity. But in addition, the trains in France are divided into regions, each with its own train operator. So that means that in Normandy, the northwest coast of France, you have a different train than in southeastern France.

Fortunately, this is less confusing than it sounds now. Because it doesn’t matter at all for your ease of travel and booking train tickets. This is because most of these train operators in France still fall under one company and all train tickets can be booked there. That company is SNCF and below you can read how exactly that works with all those branches.

French trains explained

1. SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français)

So France’s major train operator is SNCF, which manage the following types of trains:

  • TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse): SNCF’s flagship, TGVs are the express trains that connect major cities without too many stops in between. The fastest option, but therefore often the most expensive. These trains also cross borders to major cities in neighbouring countries.
  • TER (Transport Express Régional): The TER network provides regional transport and are thus like our local trains, with stops in all the small villages and slower routes.
  • Intercités: These actually fall between the TGV and TER. They cover longer distances and make fewer stops than the TER, but more stops and slower than the TGV. Generally slightly cheaper than the TGV, though.
  • Intercités de Nuit: Or night intercity, the night train in France. Amazingly affordable and, above all, an easy way to travel from big city to big city, although stops are also made in smaller towns.
2. OuiGo

Ouigo, a subsidiary of SNCF, is known for its budget-friendly high-speed trains. You can buy train tickets for as little as €10! It is often called the Ryainair or Easyjet of the railways. The reason is mainly due to the fact that unlike just about every other train in Europe, Ouigo trains have a luggage limit. Thereby, the stops are not always the most convenient locations. For instance, the stations just outside the city, which means you sometimes have to take a tram or local train to actually get to your accommodation.

But other than that, they are really fine trains! I caught several of them and had no complaints. There is wifi on board, power outlets by the seats and more than enough luggage space. The extra cost for 1 piece of luggage in 2024 is just €5 and a seat selection is €3. Too good to be true? It does sound that way. But I personally have yet to find any drawbacks to these trains and always look first to see if this is an option for the train journey I want to take. You can buy Ouigo’s train tickets through their own website or through SNCF.

Another advantage: you can resell these tickets through the website, if you can’t go anyway. Of course, there has to be a buyer. If nobody buys your ticket, you lose your money. You can also change the route, but this usually costs €16, so buying a new ticket is often cheaper.

3. LiO train

LiO Train is the train operator of south-eastern France. In other words, the region of Occitanie. One of my favourite regions. The Pyrenees also fall under this region, so these are the trains you use to discover the beautiful mountain peaks of southern France.

To motivate more people in this region to travel by train, spot-cheap train tickets have been regularly available in Occitanie since 2019. For example, certain routes are only €1 as standard and all routes in the region are only €1 on the first weekend of the month. This applies all year round, except in July and August. But even then there are plenty of €1 tickets to be found, or else train tickets for €5 are now not alarmingly more expensive. For that price, you get a simple train, without wifi or cafe. But with power outlets and, of course, in the mountains, beautiful views.

Check the website for current promotions. My tip: play a bit with the route and travel days. For instance, I once had 5 tickets for €1 each, while the route from A to B in one go was about €35. So it can sometimes save to break up the route into smaller pieces and get out for a coffee along the way, for example.

4. Nomad train

Nomad, again part of the SNCF, is the train operator in Normandy. So the same thing LiO is to Occitanie, Nomad is to Normandy. Among other things, you take this train from Paris to the coast and, of course, within Normandy itself. Fine trains, most of which got fairly substantial updates in 2022 and were even known as the most punctual train routes in France. These trains have a café, power outlets and wifi. Although I couldn’t get the wifi to work myself.

5. TGV Lyria

TGV Lyria is a collaboration between SNCF and Swiss SBB and connects Paris to the big 4 cities in Switzerland. You get TGV luxury and speed, even getting to Zurich in less than 4 hours.

For these kinds of trains that cross national borders, you can also always book train tickets through international platforms. At RailEurope, for example, you can find all European train operators ánd you have the advantage of being able to resell tickets if your trip cannot go ahead after all.

Book European train journeys with Rail Europe
6. Eurostar, voorheen Thalys

Eurostar is an international high-speed train operator, and therefore not actually specifically French. Eurostar is a combination of the British Eurostar and the formerly French train company Thalys. It’s the train you can take from London directly to Paris or, for example, from Paris to Amsterdam. You can book the train through international platforms such as RailEurope, but SNCF also offers the train. And of course, the Eurostar website itself.

Moldavische wijn

How to book train tickets for French trains?

With all these different train operators in France, you might be a little lost on how to buy your train tickets. But that’s actually quite easy. Although all these train operators have their own websites, where you can obviously order tickets, you can also find everything on the SNCF website. This includes Eurostar and Lyria.

If you specifically want to use one of these train operators, you can of course book directly through that website. For example, I myself use Ouigo’s website a lot, to check for budget trains first. But for your own convenience or when looking for specific train times, for example, you can thus book everything through SNCF. Of course, you can also buy train tickets at the station itself. Then you just run the risk of the train being full or very expensive because it’s last minute.

You don’t need to print the train tickets. Download the app to easily have all your tickets on your phone and have the QR code scanned at a control.

Prices of French train tickets

With all these different train operators in France, you might be a little lost on how to buy your train tickets. But that’s actually quite easy. Although all these train operators have their own websites, where you can obviously order tickets, you can also find everything on the SNCF website. This includes Eurostar and Lyria.

If you specifically want to use one of these train operators, you can of course book directly through that website. For example, I myself use Ouigo’s website a lot, to check for budget trains first. But for your own convenience or when looking for specific train times, for example, you can thus book everything through SNCF. Of course, you can also buy train tickets at the station itself. Then you just run the risk of the train being full or very expensive because it’s last minute.

You don’t need to print the train tickets. Download the app to easily have all your tickets on your phone and have the QR code scanned at a control.

Pro’s and con’s of French trains

I am generally a fan of French trains. They are usually on time and so you always have a seat. Moreover, train stations are well organised with clear indications of where to board for your seat number. The train network in France is extensive, allowing you to visit many a small village by train.

The only drawback actually for me is that there is really rarely wifi. Train trips are my working days for me, so it’s a bit annoying that I can’t put those times to good use. Also, France is obviously not super cheap, so you really have to look for the deals sometimes. But it can be very cheap.

All in all, France is definitely one of my favourite train countries!

Prettiest trainroute in France

The most beautiful train route in France is undoubtedly the yellow train through the Pyrenees. This is a slow train that covers a 63 km route right through the French Pyrenees. I have created a full train trip around this train, as it’s a bit hidden away in the mountains. Are you up for a 7 stop, 10 hour train route of Southern France? Then this is for you.