» National rail company SNCF plots new TGV service for province-to-province trips, with coordinated development of stations in Paris’ suburbs.
With a high-speed rail system whose capacity and breadth expands every year, France boasts of an efficient national travel network. It is limited, however, because of its historic focus on its terminal stations in Paris, which account for a large percentage of overall trips. Today, customers traveling from region to region, uninterested in stopping in the capital, still are often required to switch trains in Paris, a time-consuming transfer that typically requires crossing the capital by metro. Meanwhile, the city’s suburban residents, who make up 80% of the population of the metropolitan area, are forced to enter the city to make most rail trips.
SNCF railways is plotting a solution through the construction of two new circumferential lines and five new stations in the suburbs. As the United States government prepares to commit to significant investments in new high-speed rail corridors, it should look to Paris to examine the French capital’s planning errors and its new efforts to remediate the situation.
The first three French high-speed lines operated on the same simple model: depart from a Parisian center-city station and extend to a major city in the provinces. The LGV Sud-Est extended to Lyon from Gare de Lyon in 1981; the LGV Atlantique departed from Gare Montparnasse towards Le Mans and Tours in 1990; the LGV Nord, heading to Lille, left Gare du Nord in 1993. Each provided excellent connections between Paris and regional cities, but commuters hoping to avoid the capital altogether were left without fast options. Though the required transfers through Paris may increase the stature of the capital city, it does a complete disservice for people who want to get from region to region. It encourages air and car alternatives.
That situation changed somewhat in 1994, when the LGV Interconnexion Est opened. The 35-mile link connected the Sud-Est and Nord lines and created two new stations at Charles de Gaulle Airport and at Euro Disney in Marne-la-Vallée. The project has made it possible to travel 600 miles from Lille, in the country’s north, to Marseille, on the Mediterreanean, in less than five hours, without a transfer in Paris.
But for people attempting to get to the west side of the country, there’s no simple solution. TGV trains traveling east-west through the Paris region have to share commuter rail tracks through the south of the city. Trains heading to the northwest of the country, which is currently disconnected from the high-speed network, have to use extensive sections of out-of-the-way, slow-running track.
SNCF’s solution to the problem will involve the construction of two new lines — one circling around the south of the city, and the other traversing the northwest. Each project would eliminate transfers for province-to-province travel. In the south, Orly Airport and Villeneuve-Saint-Georges would get TGV service. The northwest line, which would share tracks with the new circumferential automatic metro being planned for the Parisian suburbs, would connect Europe’s largest business district at La Défense and the growing hub at Pleyel, each of which would be provided brand new stations.
The French rail company envisions new terminals on the scale of Shanghai’s south station that will allow commuters direct travel to areas virtually everywhere in the country. The La Défense hub would have the honor of hosting the terminus of the LGV Normandie line, which would connect Paris to Le Havre on the Atlantic coast in just 1h15, compared to two hours today. No longer would all of the major hubs be located in Parisian city limits.
The plan has a number of substantial benefits. Eurostar trains would connect La Défense with the City of London in 2h15. The overload of trains and passengers at Paris’ existing train stations would be relieved by the implementation of new service at suburban hubs, which would reduce overall travel times for people who live outside of the city.
Many of these problems could have been solved years ago had the TGV network been built from the start with through-running trains with a tunnel under central Paris, such as one connecting the Gare Montparnasse and the Gare du Nord. That project, however, was never pursued because of its high cost. And the construction of the new south and northwest links would essentially solve the problem by allowing a detour around the central city. In its recent proposal for Midwestern high-speed rail, SNCF promoted the idea of constructing a bypass of Chicago in the project’s first phase, indicating that it had learned its lesson.
Indeed, the recent French interest in expanding access to the Parisian suburbs is indicative of the fact that singular central city stations are not always enough to satiate the rail travel demands of a region’s residents. Unlike air travel, which relies on just one or two airports per region, rail has the advantage of being able to access several stations; this allows people in different parts of a region quick access to service. If today, most residents of the Paris area have to enter the city to get on a TGV, SNCF’s proposals will open travel to people in the north and south.
In the U.S., where cities are more spread out and where public transport links are less well developed, stations outside of downtown such as those SNCF is developing could be an important element of preliminary high-speed plans. If the Washington-Charlotte rail line is ever improved to true high-speed service, for instance, a bypass around Washington to allow more direct service to areas north of the American capital could be necessary if capacity ever becomes a problem. A station in suburban Virginia would be obligatory — as long as it is placed in a reasonably built-up area to avoid inducing sprawl.
That said, as the French example shows, it may not be necessary to build those suburban connections first; the TGV has been enormously successful so far with mostly center-city stops.