On foot, by bike, by public transport, by car or by train. What does French mobility look like? And what can they do fifteen minutes from home? On the occasion of European Mobility Week, "The World Cities" went out into the field to meet users and experts. Reports and investigations to be found in podcast and in writing in the series “A quarter of an hour in town”. Fifth episode of this dossier: the train.
From a distance, it looks like the hall of a small airport. When you approach, the Calais-Fréthun station (Pas-de-Calais) looks more like a large sheet metal shed. The last train station on the continent before the Channel Tunnel “is relatively inhuman”laments Elisabeth Chevrier, who goes there every morning and every evening.
This resident of a village on the Côte d'Opale works as a doctor in several hospitals in Lille, a hundred kilometers and twenty-five minutes by TGV. She is able to list, from her head, the services available in the station: “A vending machine for drinks and sweets, free toilets, a waiting area with an electrical outlet for telephones, a book box, an Amazon pick-up point. » And a large car park, enlarged in 2019 to accommodate the vehicles of an ever-increasing number of travelers, who, like her, go back and forth daily between the coast and the regional metropolis.
The cafeteria, on the other hand, has closed “during the first confinement and never reopened”regrets the user. “She was very practical. There were drinks, newspapers, metro tickets for Paris, and sometimes I left my car keys with the shopkeeper, to help out my daughter.”she says.
All this does not make a city, but offers, in a quarter of an hour, something to occupy your time. The TGV stations in the middle of the countryside, called “beet stations” or “lavender stations” depending on the regions where they are located, were designed to connect rural areas or medium-sized towns to distant destinations. From Le Creusot-TGV, on the Paris-Lyon high-speed line, commissioned in 1981, in Montpellier-Sud-de-France, inaugurated in 2019 on the outskirts of the Hérault metropolis, these stations testify to a policy of layout combining high speed and economic attractiveness.
From the launch of the Paris-Lyon line, "the creation of TGV stations in the heart of peri-urban areas" endowed "significant land availability and efficient road accessibility was, in the eyes of local authorities, an opportunity to set up development projects"wrote the geographer Valérie Facchinetti-Mannone, lecturer at the University of Burgundy and author of a thesis on “the territorialisation of high-speed stations”, in the review Geotransports in 2013.
In France, there are about twenty of these “exurban” stations, as geographers have called them, with various destinies. Some are really planted in the middle of the countryside, like Meuse-TGV, and others are overtaken by urbanization, like Champagne-Ardenne-TGV or Avignon-TGV. The Valence-TGV-Rhône-Alpes-Sud station, ideally located in the Rhône valley, attracts companies thanks to Rovaltain, its business park specializing in sustainable development. The number of jobs there has gone from 700 in 2010 to 2,300 today. Hotels accommodate business customers and restaurants offer standard meals to employees. A real peri-urban city built on agricultural land. Yes, but “a success story”completes the geographer.
In Mâcon-Loché-TGV or TGV-Haute-Picardie, economic activities do not owe much to the convoys loaded with travelers who pass at full speed without stopping
On the other hand, around Mâcon-Loché-TGV, TGV-Haute-Picardie or Le Creusot-TGV, economic activities do not owe much to the convoys loaded with travelers who pass at full speed without stopping. "In Vendôme, companies have favored the proximity of the departmental road to that of the station", observes Valérie Facchinetti-Mannone. Thus, she summarizes, the urbanization of the TGV poles, with its successes and its failures, followed "the same logic as that which prevailed, in France, around motorway interchanges, or in business areas".
Bloopers of failures
However, all the stations have one thing in common, that of being poorly connected to the surrounding areas by public transport. The list of failures borders on the blooper. In Fréthun, the link with the station in the city center of Calais, located 6 kilometers away, is provided by train or coach during departures or arrivals of a TGV for Lille and Paris. On the other hand, a bus serving the tourist town of Wissant, between capes Gris-Nez and Blanc-Nez, " has been deleted "deplores Elisabeth Chevrier, who recognizes that “no one took it”. In front of the station, a sign purports to indicate " bus schedule " of one "regular line"but the information that may have once been there has disappeared.
The Lorraine-TGV station was deliberately built near the A31 motorway, which connects Metz to Nancy, and not to Vandières (Meurthe-et-Moselle), where the high-speed line crosses the railway track which connects the two cities. "It's nonsense, which results from a squabble between elected officials"protests Louis Blaise, representative of the National Federation of Associations of Transport Users (FNAUT).
A tram line serves Montpellier-Sud-de-France, but you have to walk more than a kilometer to reach it, and the capacity of the trams does not allow all the passengers of a TGV train to be carried. To get from Paris to Aix-en-Provence, it is better to get on the train to Marseille and then take the CarTreize, rather than waiting for a hypothetical coach at the TGV station, located about twenty kilometers from the city. However, the parking lot is literally overflowing.
A “French specificity”
As every time it has to pay, in reputation, for decisions taken by the State, SNCF refrains from commenting. The branch of the railway company that manages the stations, Gares & Connexions, is content to specify that "the intermodality of these stations with regional and local public transport is above all the responsibility of local and regional authorities". Local elected officials are also trying to repair the errors. Thus, the mayor of Montpellier, Michaël Delafosse (PS), announced that the tram line would be extended to the station in 2024.
"In France, the priority seems to be to serve Paris as quickly as possible" Jon Worth, journalist specializing in transport
“These beetroot stations poorly connected to existing public transport networks are a French specificity”, says Jon Worth, a British teacher and journalist based in Berlin, who tested the strengths and weaknesses of rail networks during a long summer trip on European trains. " In France, emphasizes this specialist, the priority seems to be to serve Paris as quickly as possible. » A difficult challenge, because “some stations only have a few connections per day”underlines the geographer Valérie Mannone-Facchinetti. “For the SNCF, these services are not interesting, because they slow down the trains and mobilize places which could be occupied by travelers making the journey from end to end”she adds.
The concept, however, seems to be a thing of the past. The last exurban station to date, Montpellier-Sud-de-France, was the subject of strong protest. For Valérie Facchinetti-Mannone, "This model is no longer compatible with the Sustainable Development Goals".