A TER train to Mulhouse prepares to depart from Kruth in the Vosges region of eastern France. The only restricted service on this route is the 06.37 departure from Kruth which is reserved for holders of season tickets (photo © hidden europe).
There has been uncertainly in France this week over plans to regulate travel on regional trains – known as TER services in much of the country, although the branding does vary by region. There was a move at the national level to limit the number of travellers on each TER train, and controlling access through a system of boarding passes. But the authorities in some regions have pushed back on the national proposal. There a real state of flux here. Some regions which even late on Friday 7 May were still saying a firm 'non' to the idea of introducing boarding cards may yet fall into line over the days ahead.
As France tentatively relaxes its Coronavirus restrictions, a process known as déconfinement, more train services are being introduced from Monday 11 May 2020. So next week, we’ll see more TGV trains running on long-distance routes, but do remember that there are still major restrictions on travel. And we’ll also see the reinstatement of more TER trains. These are the regional services which complement the core mainline network.
TERs are not just an add-on. The great majority of railway stations across France are served only by TER trains. They are the trains used for hops to market towns and big cities, but they can also be used for medium and long journeys. Indeed, it is possible to create long itineraries across France relying only on TER trains, and we have often commended such journeys as the best way to explore France by rail.
The great advantage of TER services is that you don’t generally need to pre-book. In ordinary times, you just hop on and ride. But these are not ordinary times. To avoid overcrowding on TER trains as France gently relaxes its Coronavirus restrictions, a system of regulated access to trains is being introduced on certain routes.
This does not apply throughout France. In Brittany, for example there are no restrictions. At the other end of the scale, in the Occitanie region of southern France all TER trains are affected from 11 May. There you need to have a coupon d’accès (boarding card) in order to be allowed to use a train. Similar schemes are being introduced in some other French regions, sometimes in an across-the-board way as in Occitanie but elsewhere in a more targeted and limited way.
In French Flanders, for example, the requirement to have a boarding card is limited to trains running to or from Lille. It doesn’t apply to other trains in that region. It’s not a question of whether your journey takes you to, from or through Lille. It’s the route of the train that counts. So if you are traveling from, say, Saint-Omer to Calais and the train originates in Lille, then you need a boarding card.
Where a boarding card is required, it is free of charge. It can of course only be used in conjunction with a valid rail ticket for the journey. The easiest way to get a coupon d’accès is by using the SNCF Assistant App or by checking on the regional TER site for your journey. That latter option requires a bit of understanding of French geography and TER regions. But SNCF have a useful map with live links to each of the eleven regions.
Our scan of the French regions suggests that it’s only for a small minority of TER trains that the new boarding card requirement is being introduced. But even within some regions there is considerable variation. In the Grand Est region, for example, it covers only a limited number of trains, mainly at peak commute times. But in many cases the only passengers entitled to secure a boarding card are season ticket holders.
In the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region, the coupon d’accès requirement applies to just a single TER route, namely that from Dijon via Dole to Besançon. And even there, it’s only for seven trains in each direction each day. Even on this route it does not apply to any trains departing from Dijon or from Besançon between 09.00 and 15.30.
Where a boarding card is required to join a TER train, it may be obtained up to seven days prior to the date of travel in some regions, but only three days ahead in other regions. We expect that some consensus may emerge over the upcoming days.
Even in regions where the requirement to secure a boarding card is not being enforced, the TER authorities are publishing detailed lists of trains which are expected to be busy. The clear message here is 'stay safe by avoiding those busy trains and amend your travel plans to a quieter time of day.' Timetables are in a state of flux too. All regions have committed to posting the timetables which will apply for this coming week (ie. 11 to 15 May) on their dedicated regional TER website by Sunday afternoon (10 May). Finally, tucked away in the small print are some other restrictions. For an initial period, running just until early June, there are in some areas a ban on taking bicycles on TER trains.