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The French transportation system is one of the best in western Europe. French railways, which were nationalized just before World War II, carry a somewhat greater ton-mileage load of freight than do those of Germany, and French passenger mileage is also slightly greater than that of its eastern neighbor. The government has used low freight rates to stimulate economic activity, and passenger rates have been kept artificially low to make traveling easier for the lower income groups.

  French TGV train
Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV)

In addition, the state has electrified the busiest lines (26% of the total track is now electric, but this carries over 75% of all traffic). It has also developed Europe's fastest passenger train, the high-speed Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV); it began operation in 1981 on a specially built Paris-Lyon track, where it cruised at up to 185 miles per hour (298 km/h).

In 1988, a consortium of French and British construction companies began work on the English Channel Tunnel — or "Chunnel". Completed in 1994, it established the first direct rail link between France and Great Britain. Average travel time between Paris and London via the Chunnel is about 3 hours.

The state has endeavored to keep abreast of technological changes, such as container services for freight, and has catered to passengers by attaching flatcars to trains to carry their automobiles. Furthermore, the French railway system has integrated rail and road freight services so that shippers may combine the features of each that best suit their purposes.

Inland Waterways

Shippers also use the internal waterways of the country, particularly for low-cost, bulky, and heavy goods. The ton-miles carried by canal and river barges amount to 20% of the total for rail freight. The three principal waterways deep enough to accommodate the 1,500-ton barges common in Europe are the Rhine River, the Seine between Le Havre and Paris, and the canalized section of the Moselle River below Metz.


Although the French are avid motorists, France was slow to build modern superhighways. This was because the relatively thinly populated country had a good existing network of older main roads. In 1967, France had fewer superhighways (autoroutes) even than tiny Netherlands. Since then, however, building has been rapid, and by 1982 France had 3,300 miles (5,310 km) of autoroutes, almost as many as Italy and twice as many as Britain. Tolls on the autoroutes are heavy.

Air and Sea Transport

Internal air services were also late to develop, but today France has the most elaborate domestic passenger air network in Europe. Toulouse, for example, is linked to Paris by eight flights a day each way, and many regular cross-country services link quite small cities. The main internal carrier is Air Inter, a state-owned subsidiary of Air France and of the state railways. Several small private airlines compete with it.

The French merchant shipping fleet is the world's ninth largest in total tonnage (flags of convenience excepted), about the same size as Italy's and half the size of Britain's. In tonnage handled, including oil, grain, and other bulk cargoes, Marseille is the world's eighth-largest port and Le Havre the 13th largest.

Edited by Ian C. Mills

Sources: 2001 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, ©2000 Grolier Interactive Inc., and Encyclopedia Americana, © 2003 Grolier Publishing Company, Inc. – All Rights Reserved. Fodor's Paris, Fodor's Travel Publications, Inc., published in the U.S. by Random House, Inc., New York.

Images: 'Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV)', ©2000 Grolier Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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