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Riding the rails in France

TGV, one of France's bullet trains, at Nancy Station
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France pioneered high speed rail transportation in Europe in the 1980s with its TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) bullet trains. LGV (Ligne à Grande Vitesse) services connect Paris to major destinations in the southeast, southwest, Atlantic and western France, as well as eastern France. The LGV Nord service links Paris to the Channel Tunnel through Lille. These services, operated by SNCF Voyages, a branch of the French national rail company SNCF, are being expanded to include more cities all the time. LGV trains are France's premier rail services, are priced accordingly and need to be booked in advance.

TGV trains only visit the most important destinations. Slower trains, that run at conventional speeds and make more frequent stops, are also operated by SNCF. These connect the rest of France in an extensive web of rail links. Most places can be reached by train although an onward journey by local bus, taxi or rental car may be required.

Destinations that involve crossing the Alps or the Pyrenees are another story. Those trips can require several changes or long waits in local stations. The journey between Perpignan, at the foot of the Pyrenees in southwest France, and Lourdes, northeast in the Pyrenees du Midi, is less than 100 miles as the crow flies but may actually involve seven or eight hours of train travel because of the mountains. Though this kind of delay is uncommon, it's a good idea to consider geography when planning your travel method and timetable.

Local rail service between provincial cities or larger towns and their suburbs is provided by TER trains, organised by regional authorities who lease rail lines from SNCF. TER trains serve commuters, shoppers and tourists. They run frequently, are inexpensive and don't normally have to be booked.

If the adventure of high mountain travel by train appeals to you, you should know about two special and historic rail services. The Train des Pignes carries visitors high into the Alpes Maritimes, from Nice, on the Cote d'Azur, to Digne. The views of the Mediterranean Coast from this little train are spectacular. In summer, it is possible to enjoy balmy coastal weather, frosty mountain air and snow all on the same day. In winter the train, operated by Chemins de Fer de Provence from it's own historic station in Nice, takes passengers into winter sports territory.

At the other end of the coast, the Petit Train Jaune - the little yellow train - travels from Perpignan, in the southwest, to the highest train station in France, and one of the highest in Europe, at Bolquère. The journey crosses breathtaking chasms on one of the world's highest suspension bridges. In good weather, passengers can ride in an open car for an extra mountain thrill.