Train versus plane: with many domestic flights banned in France, we test its rail network

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Visionary policy or pipe dream? An 18-day, 3,000km loop from Paris to the Atlantic and Mediterranean and back should tell us

France could well be the perfect place to track the progress of the main battle over the future of travel: trains versus planes. In May 2021, France positioned itself as the frontrunner in a carbon-cutting train renaissance when its government enacted a ban on domestic flights where the journey could be done by train in less than two and a half hours. “We are the first to do it,” Emmanuel Macron said on Twitter, and it was hailed by minister Clément Beaune as a “powerful message” and a “strong symbol”. The European Commission designated 2021 as the “Year of European Rail” and billions of euros have since poured into railway infrastructure across central and eastern Europe.

So as the summer holidays began, a heatwave rose and nationwide strikes loomed, I bought a “one country” Interrail pass for £201 and set off on a circular loop round France by train, to see whether Macron’s policy was visionary policy or a pipe dream that discounted the strain it would put on crumbling public infrastructure. The 18-day route I’d plotted used trains from high-speed TGVs to rickety regional TERs, blending major cities with small towns. Arriving on the Eurostar in Paris, I’d head west towards Nantes, down the Atlantic coast to Bordeaux and seaside resort Soulac-sur-Mer, across the south to Narbonne and Marseille, before heading across country to the ancient volcanic region of Chaîne des Puys, before returning to Paris.

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