In August 2019 the Frankfurter Allgemeine, one of the most prestigious German-language newspapers, published an article that went by the somewhat unflattering title: “Höllenritt im ICE”, which translates roughly as “A hellish ride on the ICE”. Somewhat less extraordinary than the title of the article is the fact that this is just one of many articles in the German press on the state of the railway.
The Deutsche Bahn’s highspeed ICE trains have now been in service for nearly thirty years. But while a lot of time and money was invested in upgrading and modernising the rolling stock, the same cannot be said of the railway infrastructure on which the fabulous ICEs are intended to run. As a result, frequent and lengthy delays have become a thing that travellers in Germany have come to view as the new reality of rail travel in Germany.
As such, it’s hardly surprising that the plane is still a viable and competitive alternative to the train. It’s not much more expensive and at least it’s reliable.
In contrast, in France the situation is very different. Since the introduction of the infamous TGV on the French railway network, the high speed train has gone from strength to strength, sending domestic air travel in France into a steady decline, as more and more passengers switch form air travel to trains.
Today I’m on my way to Dijon for a long weekend with my saving grace to celebrate our wedding anniversary. As it happens, on Saturday’s there’s only one direct train from Basel to Dijon, but that’s sold out. And so, I shall have to take a train from Basel to Mulhouse first, and connect to the TGV from there.
I book the tickets on my phone in the SNCF InOui app, which is easy to navigate and even allows you to select your seats online at the time of booking.
Given that the French border is only about 8 kilometres away, the north wing of the main railway station in Basel is operated by the SNCF, the French national railways. Normally, you can access the French part of the station easily from the inside. But that part of the building has been gutted and is currently undergoing extensive rennovation. As a result, travellers have to go around the building to access the French part of the station. But of course, it wouldn’t be Switzerland if everything weren’t perfectly signposted…
The journey from Basel to Mulhouse is by a regular TER train bound for Strasbourg, that stops a few times on the way, including in Mulhouse. The journey from Basel to Mulhouse takes 23 minutes.
There is one First Class carriage at the head of the train, which is old but well maintained. The upholstery is soft and comfortable and the seat pitch is good. There are electricity sockets, but not on all seats.
Mulhouse is a fairly large station but easy to navigate. I have fifteen minutes to make the connection, which is ample time to take the stairs up onto the foot bridge and then two platforms across to where the train to Dijon will be leaving from.
There is a heated waiting room available on the platform.
My train will be arriving form Luxembourg and then continues on via Dijon and a few other places to Montpellier. In Mulhouse the train from Luxembourg is merged with the carriages from another TGV.
Todays’s service is operated by a double decker composition. These trains aren’t much to look at from the outside and certainly don’t look very aerodynamic and fast. But don’t let that fool you.
Seating on the TGV in 1 + 2 in First Class, and there are two different types of seats you can select: single and twin seats in an aircraft style layout or opposing seats for two or four people.
The seats are plush and comfortable and have a good recline and footrest. Every seat comes with an electricity socket and a reading lamp. Complimentary wifi is available on board.
Our train departs with a delay of six minutes. The TGV can only accelerate to high speed once it’s on its dedicated tracks. So for the first few minutes the ride is rather unspectacular. Just like any other train really…
But then we veer off to the left onto the dedicated high speed line and we gradually accelerate until eventually we‘re doing 320 kilometres per hour. The train makes two very brief stops in Belfort and then in Besançon and by the time we pull into Dijon station, we’ve already made up half of the delay and are running just three minutes behind schedule.
Dijon is a gorgeous town, famous of course as the birth place of all things mustard. In fact, generally speaking, I think foodies of all kinds love Dijon!
The journey on the French rail network is pleasant, comfortable and reliable. And apart from all that, I must say I really am impressed by the capabilities of the TGV. I mean, I knew they were fast, hence the same, but somehow I’d never realised they were that fast…