Of Bikes on Trains in France (the long way home)

Coming home has involved four very different train journeys with the bike, and a little bit of riding in between. First up was the problem of getting from Le Beausset to Marseille St. Chales station in time for the 10:18 train to Bordeaux on Friday.

This was necessary because you cannot take bikes on the TGV trains from Marseille to Paris, whereas you can on the atlantic TGVs.

There seem to be three categories of train in France. Firstly the local rural and commuter lines. These are often run by TER and generally you can take bikes without having to book subject to there being space. These are usually stopping trains and you can just turn up, buy a ticket and go. There are no discount advance fares. Rather like our DMUs (diesel multiple units) in the SW.
Then there are the longer distance trains run by, for example, Intercites or Corail pulled by a single engine at the front and not using the high speed lines and not stopping everywhere. On these you must book a bike space costing 10€ when you buy your ticket – you may be able to do this on the day, I’m not sure, but the signs on the train say these bike spaces must be reserved.
Thirdly there are the high speed trains (TGV – train grande vitesse) like our Intercity 125s with an engine at each end but faster. Not all TGV lines have bike spaces and when they do again they must be reserved in advance for 10€.

So to get back to Roscoff from Marseille I had to use an Intercities train from Marseille to Bordeaux and then either a succession of cross country local trains with non bookable bike spaces to Morlaix, or get the TGV in to Paris and out again. Finally the Morlaix to Roscoff line only runs in summer so I’d have to cycle that bit (25km approx).

Le Beausset to Marseille St. Charles is about 55km and hilly and the bit across the city would be slow so at least 3 1/2 hrs to ride – would mean leaving at 06:30 in the dark to get there just in time for the 10:18. The sun doesn’t rise and it doesn’t get light till 8am at the moment. No thank you.

There is a local line from Toulon to Marseille that stops at St. Cyr which is 15km downhill, so 45mins, from Le Beausset. An 08:49 train looked possible. So Nick and I went down to the station to ask locally if either a bike space could be reserved, or how easy it would be to get on the train with a bike. No reservations are possible and at that time the train is usually pretty full (commuters) so you are likely to have to wait with the bike for a train with space.

Ok then the only solution would be to go on Thursday afternoon and overnight in Marseille. In the event I didn’t fancy a 50km ride after a rather nice lunch over hills and through unknown city traffic. So I set off down the till after 4pm to get a train into Marseilles where I had booked a cheap AirBnB about 5km from to station. 

In the event I reckon it was a good job I did; the ride down was easy but even this late afternoon train was pretty full and getting on with the bike required some assertiveness and “pardon”s. This is one of the TER double decker trains, notionally there is a bike space shared with flipup seats on the lower deck in each carriage but getting round the corner and down the steps wouldn’t be easy even in an empty train. The seats were all taken and the doorway space already full of luggage and people so I just had to stand in the middle trying not to fall over every time the train accelerated or slowed. And at every stop reversing out with the bike to let people off, then getting back on ahead of the new lot.

It arrived 5 mins late and by the time it got in to Marseille it was 20 mins late. There I discovered my rough 5km estimate was somewhat low by the time one had wiggled around the back streets, and it was quite a climb, and I hadn’t allowed for the simple slower riding speed in city because of lights, junctions and traffic. It was getting dark by the time I arrived and nowhere to eat for miles around. 

Never mind, got down to the station in good time on Friday. The Bordeaux train starts in Marseilles so you don’t have the added anxiety of finding the right place on the platform to wait and then getting loaded before they close the doors. French trains can be very long – much longer that in the UK. 

In general if catching a train with a bike in France it is essential to get to the station at least 15mins before the stated departure. You are likely to have to carry your bike up and down crowded stairs, or go a very long way to find a lift or escalator. Then you might be at the wrong end of the train – they have useful signboards on the platforms giving the composition of the train. Pretty essential as the coach numbering system can be pretty illogical (forget about Voiture 1 being at one end and then going in sequence up to Voiture 18. Some numbers will be missing and the sequence might stop in the middle and then continue backwards from the other end of the train. But if you read the signs you’ll be okay. 

The Bordeaux train was an Intercities with about 18 coaches two of which had good dedicated hanging space for 6 bikes in the end of the bar car. Hanging bikes by the front wheel is quite good if it is well designed and this was (unlike those Cross-country trains which cram 2 hanging bikes into a tiny cubicle that the cleaners also use to put rubbish bags in if there are no bikes.) 

Having the bike space in the bar car is very good as it reduces the tendency for the first passengers on with large cases to think it is general luggage space, as happens if the space is in a seating car. In this instance the train started here and in fact Genie was the only bike most of the time so there was no problem. Also the hangers were well designed, but of course you do have to take all your bags off the bike. The train was quite full. 

So the Intercites to Bordeaux pretty much followed the route I had cycled down, taking just over 6hrs to make the journey that took me 8 days. Top speed about 150km/hr with quite a lot of stops. At distance of about 670km by the time it has gone up past Arles to cross the Rhone and then back down the Sete to follow the canal route through Toulouse. 

I’d made the same mistake with accommodation in Bordeaux, further, slower and hillier than I expected. In the morning brouillard (fog) and the train ar 09:04. I arrived damp and with only 5mins to get to the right end of the 20 coach train. This is two 10 coach sets each with 2 power cars. Very long. These were the newer TGV Duplex sets with 2 deck seating. Each set has two bike spaces on the lower deck at the end. They are in the carriage so on a full train joining mid journey you will likely find cases in the space. On this occasion there were only a couple and I was the only bike so it was easy to rearrange things. 

The train is amazing; non stop Bordeaux to Paris in 2hs 4mins. Max speed on my gps 320km/hr – that’s 200mph. About 540km so a stopped to stopped average of 270km/hr or 175mph. When you consider also that one of the principles in creating the TGV network was that this should not be an exclusive “business” service but progress for all,  so the fares are the same level as slow trains, you can see why the French love their TGVs. You can also see why they are massively profitable. 

The Bordeaux train came in to Paris Montparnasse on time and the Morlaix one left the same station 50 mins later so time to get a sandwich. 

The TGV to Brittany uses the slightly older generation of stock. 10 coach sets again but this one is only single deck and has a max speed of 300km/hr. Again it is made up of two sets nose to tail so 20 coaches and again only 2 bike spaces in a set. The train divides at Rennes with the tail set peeling off to St.Malo and only the front half going to Brest stopping at Morlaix. This explains why I have been unable to book 3 bike spaces from Morlaix for On2Bonn – there only are two.

Also once past Rennes it is not a high speed line and the train stops almost everywhere. Rather like the trains into Cornwall. Again about 540km but this takes 3hrs so average speed down to 180km/hr or 110mph.

The two bike spaces are in a little extra bit of 2nd class seating next to the front power car where there are 4 flip-up seats. Again I was the only bike on this train. 

Anyway it arrived on time and the weather was still warm and sunny for a nice gentle ride out to St.Pol de Leon. Up before dawn in the morning for the last 6km to the Roscoff ferry. Blighty beckons. Its been a great trip. I might post a rambling summation here before its On to Bonn starting at Truro Cathedral in 12 days time.