Even today, when means of travel beyond Zola’s ken (if not Jules Verne’s) are commonplace, the majestic power of a French train is awe-inspiring; even when the distant whistle of a train in the night has been replaced (in France, anyway) by a high-pitched honking not unlike that of a small automobile or large goose, the call to adventure is irresistible.
This appeal holds fast whether one is boarding a high-speed train (TGV, or train de grande vitesse) to a distant city, or a little commuter train to the next town over, to buy groceries. For one great wonder of French trains is that there are so many of them. The French enjoy a loving, personal, and psychologically complex relationship with their automobiles, and they seem to reassert the claims of empire every time they get behind the wheel. It’s a wonder these people have mass transit at all. And yet their trains are a wonder. They go where you need to go, frequently (except during strikes), efficiently, comfortably.
Even the little train between Beynes and Paris is a double-decker; I always sit on the upper deck, so that I can enjoy the view. Beynes is, as a friend once observed, the first stop in the land beyond the suburban sprawl that surrounds the capital, and by the time one arrives, one really feels one is in the country. The Department of the Yvelines is one of France’s breadbaskets, and the train passes by shimmering fields of wheat, as well as a state agricultural school in Grignon.
Soon we come to Plaisir, the principal interest of which is its vast shopping center, home to the Auchan hypermarket, Ikea, Picard, and a few other indispensable enterprises. As that list suggests, it’s not terribly interesting to look at (there are prettier parts of town, farther from the railroad), and there’s something wrong with the tracks at the next stop, Villepreux–Les Clayes, such that the entire train lists severely. I always lean the other direction, fearful that the car will tip over if I don’t. Otherwise, this stretch of the track is a good time to take a nap.
If the car is in good condition, I can do this quite easily: the seats are arranged to face each other, and there are little bars under each seat so that I can put my feet up — excepting when some punk kid has broken the bar, which is quite easy and apparently irresistible to do. Then the bar swings loose, and it’s harder to maintain a comfortable posture. (Of course, when the car is crowded, I must sit upright while four people’s knees vie for position.)
The aptly-named Fontenay-le-Fleury is next, although the grounds along the railroad track aren’t as verdant as they used to be, since a new housing development was constructed. Still, there’s a pretty park on one side, and a forest on the other, where I sometimes see deer and rabbits that watch me pass.
Coming next to Saint-Cyr-L’Ecole, historic home of a national military school, we are entering full-out urbanization, and only the parkland around the Château de Versailles, just beyond Saint-Cyr, will interrupt the subsequent array of dense construction that leads all the way to Paris.
Versailles is a hub, its Art Déco station serving several lines, with lots of tracks. Not long ago, the Beynes line (MOPI) changed tracks, and so we no longer get good views of the Château. But we can still glimpse it through the trees — on the way to Paris. On the way back (on the POMI line), we can’t see the Château at all.
When we get to Sèvres, we can glimpse the Eiffel Tower, and that monument looms more and more prominently as we draw nearer to the Gare Montparnasse. Soon, the Parisian basin opens up alongside the train tracks, and we can see not just the Tower but also Montmartre on the far horizon, capped by the basilica of Sacré-Coeur.
At night, the Tower sparkles, and the basilica is lit up, too, its lantern like the Eye of Sauron surveying the territory below.* Our sense of excitement mounts. Tourists on their way back from Versailles, small children with their parents or grandparents, they all begin to chatter now: Ça, c’est Paris! Although I say nothing, my heart does beat faster, too.
All this, for under 6 Euros!
Some passengers prefer to add to the excitement, by gambling. Conductors don’t check tickets on the commuter trains; instead, they board at random, in small packs, to verify that we’ve paid for the ride. The odds are good, then, that nobody will check your ticket and that, when you get to the turnstile at the Gare Montparnasse, you’ll be able to squeeze through without paying. So why buy a ticket at all? Many riders, especially young people, don’t. It’s touching to hear them try to talk their way out of the hefty fines, when they do get caught.
The commuter service that serves Beynes is called the Transilien, a nice play on words that evokes transit and lien (link), as well as the idea of crossing the Ile de France, which is the region around Paris. I think somebody knew that writers might take this train, some day.
But the most significant thing about the French rail system, whether it’s the Transilien, the RER, the TGV, or something else administered by the SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer), is that it is not merely a means of getting from Point A to Point B — it’s a means of getting from Point A to Point B in France. With rare exceptions, train stations are located in city centers, with hotels, opera houses, and museums in easy walking distance. How could I possibly resist the call?
*NOTE: Though Tolkien wasn’t born when the basilica was planned, the Eye of Sauron is an entirely apt metaphor for a building constructed by conservative Catholics to loom and keep watch over all those untrustworthy left-wingers in Montmartre, after the fall of the Commune in 1871.