Dispatch: Paris

Toward a greener France? Promoting train travel over plane travel.


A couple of weeks ago, the French government passed the “Climate and Resilience” law. This law comes after a citizens’ convention on climate change (Convention citoyenne pour le climat), consisting of 150 randomly selected French citizens commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron to answer the following question: “How to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in France by at least 40 percent (in relation to 1990s levels) by 2030, in the spirit of social justice.”

This law aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by suspending short flights to destinations which would take less than 2½ hours by train. This is possible because France has an extensive high-speed railway system throughout the country. The flight routes that are targeted are Paris-Bordeaux, Paris-Lyon, Paris-Nantes, and possibly Paris-Rennes and Lyon-Marseilles. For example, traveling from Paris to Bordeaux by plane would take you one hour, compared with just over two hours by train, city center to city center, thanks to the Trains à Grande Vitesse (TGV). The electric fast trains travel at a high speed of 200 mph.

The rail system in France covers approximately 17,000 miles, and 14,200 trains travel every day.

In Paris, you will find seven train stations, all of which serve different regions all over France and its neighboring countries:

  • Gare du Nord to travel up north, as well as neighboring countries of Belgium, the U.K., and Germany.
  • Gare de l’Est to travel to Eastern regions of France (Reims and Champagne region).
  • Gare Saint-Lazare trains will take you to Normandy.
  • Gare de Lyon to travel to Lyon, Provence, all the way to the coast of the French Riviera, or the French Alps.
  • Gare d’Austerlitz will enable you to go to the chateaus of the Loire.
  • Gare Montparnasse, serving the Western regions of France: up North toward Brittany and down South toward Bordeaux and the Basque region.
  • Gare de Bercy for travel to Burgundy.

A few days ago, I took a TGV from Paris to Nice (the French Riviera). Even though I was tempted to take a direct flight from Paris to Nice (one hour and 30 minutes), I figured that it wouldn’t be so bad to take the train after all. In five hours and 58 minutes exactly, I traveled a little over 400 miles. I was able to get some work done, and stare at the beautiful landscapes of the countryside. The rivers, fields, cows, and palm trees put on an incredible show. As I was comfortably seated, I could feel the train was traveling at high speed. I made a first stop in Marseille, a city in the south of France. From there, the train continued along the coast with a spectacular view of the Mediterranean (at regular speed, because the fast rail infrastructure ends in Marseille).

In 1980, the first TGV was inaugurated. Ever since, it has been easier to travel across France and its regions. There are many advantages to traveling by train. First of all, train stations allow you to arrive directly in the city, whereas airports are built outside the cities. It is easier to commute by train; you don’t have to wait hours for Customs, and train tickets are more affordable. For tourists, there are rail passes which allow you to travel around Europe. So whether you are travelling to the U.K., the Netherlands, or Austria, you can easily hop on and off a train.

In addition, in some cases, trains can be the perfect place for romance, such as is depicted in the movie “Before Sunrise,” where an American tourist (Ethan Hawke) falls in love with a French passenger (Julie Delpy).

This new initiative to limit carbon dioxide emissions is seen by some as not enough. Greenpeace’s Jan. 21 report concludes that limiting flight travel to distances under two hours and 30 minutes by train is not enough to limit greenhouse effect, as the Paris-Nice (six hours by train), Paris-Toulouse (four hours and 14 minutes by train), and Paris-Marseille (three hours and 20 minutes) flights cause the highest emission of carbon dioxide. But surely it is a start, and hopefully a younger generation of citizens will adopt the slower pace of fast trains and enjoy the beauty of the scenery and the pleasure of traveling through a country.