Transit in France: expensive, infrequent, inconvenient

Jordan Maris, October 31, 2022

There are 3 main criterea for citizens when choosing their means of transport: price, convenience and speed. For a transit network to be successful, it needs to compete on two of three of these criteria. but French Regional transit barely manages one.

It’s expensive

Transit in France suffers extremely poor and complex ticketing and subscription system: most subscriptions are by line and are prohibitively expensive, meaning that rail is incredibly unattractive compared to driving. In many cases, a TER subscription for one line costs the same as Paris’ Navigo subscription (€70 a month), which includes the entire network of “Ile de France”.

For comparison, lets take 3 offers: The TER Auvergne-Rhone Alpes subscription for Clermont-Ferrand to Thiers (a relatively heavily used commuter route), the Ile-De-France all zones Navigo On Friday, Weber called a meeting of the groups’ top lawmakers and then tweeted: “Following the remarks by Silvio Berlusconi on Ukraine we decided to cancel our study days in Naples. Support for Ukraine is not optional.”subscription, and the VRR “B Ticket 1000” for a person living in Düsseldorf, Germany.

The TER Auvergne-Rhone Alpes Subscription

  • Monthly Cost: €100
  • Gives Access to: One Single Railway Line
  • In Area: One Single Railway Line Only
  • Definition of Off-peak: Weekends and Holidays
  • Off-peak Bonuses: -25% on other Regional Trains during the Week, -50% during the week-end.
  • Off-peak companion bonuses: -50% for up to 3 companions.
  • Monthly Cost: €70
  • Gives Access to: All Public Transit (Train, Tram, Metro, Bus)
  • In Area: In entire Region
  • Definition of Off-peak: None
  • Off-peak Bonuses: None
  • Off-peak companion bonuses: None

VRR B Ticket 1000

  • Monthly Cost: €102
  • Gives Access to: All Public Transit (Train, Tram, Metro, Bus)
  • In Area: In your city and all surrounding towns and cities.
  • Definition of Off-peak: Week days after 7PM, Weekends, Holidays
  • Off-peak Bonuses: Free Region-wide Transport
  • Off-peak companion bonuses: Free Travel for 1 adult companion or up to 3 child companions between 6 and 14.

The Irony of this is that what makes the VRR B ticket significantly more attractive than the other options (combined offer, off-peak bonuses, companion traveller), doesn’t actually result in a significant loss in revenue for the VRR, as many of those with subscriptions primarily use rail for their regular commute, Hence giving riders unlimited access to multiple lines would not put much additional strain on the network, and does not significantly lower ticketing revenues, but makes buying a subscription considerably more attractive.

It’s inconvenient and unpredictable

But changing the subscriptions alone simply isn’t enough to push people to switch. In fact, the largest barrier to citizens switching is something of a French speciality.

Because in France, ticket sales must pay for a proportion of the costs of the service, public authorities try to cut corners by offering less services, and moving services to where there is demand. By their logic, this decreases costs while maintaining revenue, but French Regions have forgotten some of the most important aspects of public transit: convenience, reliability and frequency.

To illustrate this, take a look at the following timetables:

The first is for the Clermont-Ferrand (pop 140k) to Thiers (Pop 11k) line. Clermont is a major student city, while Thiers is a historic town with a technical University. The Second is for Dessau (pop 80k) to Lutherstadt (pop 20k). With Dessau being a medium-sized town, and Lutherstadt being a small historic town. I chose these timetables as it is possible to imagine tourists visiting, or students or workers commuting between the cities in both cases.

Hour France Germany
05   05:21
06   06:21
07 07:36 07:10
08 08:26 08:10
09 09:00 09:10
10 10:55 10:10
11   11:10
12 12:20 12:58 12:10
13   13:10
14   14:10 14:32
15   15:10 15:32
16 16:20 16:50 16:10 16:32
17 17:20 17:44 17:10 17:32
18 18:26 18:10 18:32
19 19:50 19:10
20   20:10
21   21:10
23   23:00 23:28

In France, timetables are irregular, with services focussed around peak hours, whereas in Germany, services are equally distributed. The last service in France leaves at 19:50, whereas in Germany the last rail service leaves at 23:00. Bare in mind that the German service is also for a significantly smaller city than the French one, most German cities offer half-hourly service.

Both the German and French regions offer bus services between the two cities in addition to trains. On the German side there is a hourly bus service, with additional services between 21:00 and shortly after midnight. In France, bus services seem sprinkled at random intervals throughout the day, albeit with two services between 13:00 and 16:00 to compliment the lack of rail services. There are no bus services in France after 8pm.

Ask yourself, as a commuter, which service would you prefer? As a driver, which service is more likely to get you to switch from driving every morning? In France, the inflexibility of timetables prevents users from relying on transit to adapt to their lives. You cannot get to work earlier if you need to, you cannot stay in the city and have a drink with your friends, as a tourist visiting a historical town, you cannot sit down for dinner there without getting stranded. Miss your train? You’re going to have to check the transit app to even have an idea of when the next one comes: it could be in ten minutes, it could be in 3 hours.

This decision has put French Regional Transit into a viscous circle, which continues to degrade it to this day:

The Vicious cycle of French Region Transit: Lower Ticket revenues lead to service cuts, which lead to passengers switching to driving, which leads to lower ticket revenues. The Vicious cycle of French Region Transit: Lower Ticket revenues lead to service cuts, which lead to passengers switching to driving, which leads to lower ticket revenues. Image Credit - Jordan Maris


Each of these issues contribute to rendering French Regional Transit unattractive and impractical for citizens. Addressing these issues will require new political and technical structures to manage Regional Transport and coordinate various actors. This will be no easy task, as French political culture is not one of compromise but of confrontation. It is also clear that it is impossible to decouple management of Infrastructure from management of Services, as they are highly interdependent.

The next article will set out the first steps regions should take to begin the long process of improving French Regional Transit for Citizens.

This Article is the fifth of a series on fixing France’s regional trains. You can find out more in the introductory article, here.