Why is it so difficult to change trains in Paris to reach the south of France?

Welcome to Paris: statues on the facade of Gare du Nord, terminus for Eurostar trains from London (Simon Calder)
Welcome to Paris: statues on the facade of Gare du Nord, terminus for Eurostar trains from London (Simon Calder)

Rail travel to the south of France should be the norm. But a significant impediment to luring airline passengers is that most journeys from the UK to the French Mediterranean coast require a change of trains – and stations – in Paris.

Eurostar from London arrives at the Gare du Nord. High-speed TGVs for the south leave from the equally magnificent Gare de Lyon.

But the Parisian travel authority, RATP, has created some formidable hurdles for international arrivals trying to cross the capital:

  • Navigating from the far west of Gare du Nord to the far east of the station

  • Descending into a confusing underworld where they must procure a Metro ticket or Navigo Easy smartcard (the stored-value card for public transport in Paris) while avoiding pickpockets and scam artists

  • Tracking down the subterranean platform, usually but not always number 44, for an RER (suburban express) Ligne D train, then squeezing on board to travel two stops

  • At Gare de Lyon, locating the Grandes Lignes platforms using only signposting devised by someone with a deep grudge against travelling humanity – perhaps Franz Kafka’s French cousin

On Sunday, I wrote about the travails of Anne Wells, who contacted me after being given an official Eurostar connection between arriving in Paris and departing for Avignon of just 47 minutes. Have no fear, I assured Ms Wells: I will post you a spare Metro ticket, solving one of the problems, and predict you will even have time for a coffee at Gare de Lyon before leaving for Avignon.

I was wrong: she made the Avignon train by the skin of her teeth only after persuading platform staff to reopen the gate one minute before departure. And when I reported this stressful transfer, plenty of people responded.

“I once did that transfer in 23 minutes,” reports Sophie Constant. “It was like the waves parted. Absolutely magical and has yet to be bested.” But Brian McBride warns: “You want to take a chance when the RER is busy? Forget it. My wife was knocked over in the rush to board back in May.”

Another response said: “I have lived in Paris, speak fluent French, have connected Paris Nord to Gare de Lyon before, am fully able-bodied and usually have spare Metro tickets on hand, and I would feel uneasy with only 60 minutes between trains. Doable but not comfortable.”

The unpredictable queue for a Metro ticket adds to the stress. Lonely Planet vice-president Tom Hall finds RATP’s lack of acceptance of contactless bank cards “baffling”. He points out: “You can even do it on New York’s old-school system.”

Make the above-ground trans-Parisian journey by bus 91 from Rue du St-Quentin just south of Gare du Nord, recommends Philip Lynn. “Great if you have an hour spare,” he says. The same bus continues on a wide sweep around central Paris to Montparnasse station, for trains to the west and southwest of France.

If you believe travelling life is too short for uncertain public transport adventures, take a taxi: the fare should be around €30. But D A Buckley warns of having “waited around 25 minutes last time at both Gare du Nord and in reverse at Gare de Lyon” – and of “hawkers approaching you offering queue-jumping taxi rides for €60”.

Or try slow travel: “We just walk it, some fascinating shops along the way,” says Christine Green. “Allow two hours so that you can have a coffee at one of the bistros opposite the Gare de Lyon”.

You can, in some circumstances, avoid Paris by changing trains at Lille. But Rebecca Halpern laments the disappearance of overnight links from the Channel to the Mediterranean: “It’s a shame they no longer run the sleeper train from Calais to Marseille. It was one of my first travel adventures as a 17-year-old, and is a great way to arrive in the south of France.”

Perhaps that points to the fundamental issue for travellers between the UK and southern France. According to Krist van Besien: “The main problem will always be that you are doing something that SNCF [French Railways] would make illegal if they could: using the train to go from ‘somewhere not Paris’ to ‘somewhere else not Paris’.”