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The French Rail Strike: What You Need to Know

Scott Vogel

By the time you read this, a general rail strike will have begun in France, a massive shutdown that's certain to wreak havoc on travelers who are already in -- or about to travel to -- the country. Here's the latest strike information:

A domestic rail strike -- called by workers to protest planned cuts in pension benefits -- began at 2 p.m. local time on Wednesday. As of now, it is officially scheduled to last only through the entire day on Thursday, although Marion Fourestier of the French National Tourist Office says it's possible that "full train service may not be back to normal until around Friday at 4 p.m." And even that scenario is far from definite; strikers are expected to vote on a continuation of the walkout daily.

"This strike will include international trains to/from France, domestic trains and the Paris Metro," reads a statement posted Wednesday on the Web site of Rail Europe), a North American subsidiary of SNCF, the French national railway system. Chris Lazarus, a Rail Europe spokeswoman, says "we're advising people not to travel" on Thursday, and notes that the situation in Paris will be "quite severe."

There won't be a complete shutdown of domestic service, Lazarus says, noting that a tiny number of trains, including a small percentage of high-speed TGVs, will continue to run. The SNCF Web site contains detailed information on strike-affected service, but as of Wednesday afternoon, none of that information was in English.

Fourestier recommends that travelers already in France consult someone on staff at their hotel who can monitor Web sites and help with what no doubt will be a fluid situation. (For travelers holding tickets on domestic railways, refunds are being offered. Refund information as well as updated news on train service can be obtained at the Rail Europe Web site or at 888-382-7245.)

As for the RATP, which controls the Paris Metro and the suburban RER trains, service is normal today but almost completely shut down on Thursday. Cancellation of RER service means that the trains tourists normally take from Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports will not be running, and travelers will need to get creative. According to the airline, no strike of Air France employees is planned, which means that Air France coach buses from the airports to the Paris city center will continue to run ). Round-trip fares range from 14 to 22 euros, depending on the airport and destination within Paris, and passengers from all air carriers are welcome.

The news is only a bit better regarding international trains. Eurostar trains will continue to run from London to Paris via the Chunnel, but several trains have been canceled, and a statement on the Eurostar Web site says the rail company is "advising all travelers not to travel if at all possible on Thursday 18 October. Travelers who choose not to travel will be able to exchange their tickets for travel within the next 60 days."

"Apparently [Paris city] bus service is going to be reduced to 15 percent of normal traffic," says Fourestier, who suggests travelers consider alternatives if and when they make it to Paris. For one, there is the recently introduced Velib bike-sharing program, a service that's made more than 20,000 bikes available all over the Paris metro area. For another, bateau mouches should still be running on schedule, so you might want to think about taking a Seine river boat shuttle to your destination (information: www.batobus.fr).

And finally, keep in mind that "Paris is still Paris," says Fourestier. You'll be in one of the most walkable cities in the world -- certainly not the worst place you could be stuck.

Anyone leaving for France in the next day or so? Anyone already there? How are you coping?

By Scott Vogel |  October 17, 2007; 4:26 PM ET  | Category:  Scott Vogel
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I hate to say it, but this is why public transportation doesn't work in the United States. People don't want to be held hostage by union workers. In the New York area, people who work on trains can earn six figures because public agencies are willing to pay them anything to avoid a strike.

Posted by: Folgers | October 17, 2007 4:56 PM

We are Americans stuck in Paris. We had not heard about a rail strike until we were in our cab in London headed to the Eurostar train station. The strike did not affect our ability to get to Paris, but it did hamper our ability to move around town. Hotels were hard to book in advance of the World Cup Rugby finals this weekend, so we are stuck in a hotel outside the city center. Normally, the Metro would have been a very do-able option given our hotel location, but this strike has Paris by the neck. There seems to be an agreement between the rail union (Metro and RER) and the buses. Buses seem to be running at 1/3 the normal service. Or, they are so crowded, and the city is so grid-locked, it is not efficient for them to move around town. Even if you are willing to pay for taxis (30 euro or more on average -- we've taken 3 so far), or can afford a car, it is hard to move through the city center. We are walking miles every day to see what we want and using key bus and metro lines to make our way to and from the hotel when they're available. Not the greatest experience; I hope the French are able to find better contingency plans in the future for their residents and visitors alike. Passed by the Gare du Nord (where Eurostar trains come into Paris) this evening (Friday around 7pm), there were hundreds of stranded travelers and no taxis to be seen.

Posted by: rmm | October 19, 2007 4:47 PM

Rail and metro service remained substantially effected by what they are calling "social movements" on Saturday and Sunday. Compounding the problem, neither the local media nor the RATP/SNCF websites providing useful information about the strike.

Posted by: David | October 21, 2007 2:13 PM

We are in Paris. We knew about these strikes well in advance from all of our French friends who had warned us before coming. So yesterday we did all the "tourist" stuff we wanted to do and today plan on taking it easy and enjoying the parks and businesses close to where we are staying. Apparently these strikes are expected this time of year so we're just gonna go with it. Tomorrow we leave for Bordeaux on a TGV and while booking that wasn't a problem getting to the station may be. So we will leave 3 hours in advance.

Posted by: Autumn | November 14, 2007 6:46 AM

Hopefully this will be less violent than the ferry strike. I didn't really care for the French before and I care even less for them now.

Posted by: Jason | November 14, 2007 9:36 AM

We are also stranded in Paris, and getting little sympathy from friends at home . Luckily have been taken in by a parisian friend. Big problem is getting information on when we will be able to continue on our train to Spain. Suggestions on whom to contact?

Posted by: jane | November 16, 2007 7:16 AM

I live in central Paris and while there strike has made a big impact, it is certainly not at all impossible to get around. I left town over the weekend at the beggining of the strike and was able to get to CDG airport by using the Cars Air France service from Etoile near the Arc de Triomphe. It runs from 5:45 to 23:00 and leaves every 15 minutes. I took the 1 metro from Châtelet to Etoile at 5:30 am and got to the bus at 6 am- and to the airport by 6:45. It cost me 20 eur roundtrip.

Aside from that, some advice would be to check the RATP website frequently to see how your trains are working. RATP.fr is the site. It is only in French, but quite clear for those who do not speak it. It is updated throughout the day as sometimes service can abruptly stop, start, or change frequency.

The Velib' bikes are very popular right now, and even though it is cold here, the bike ride is nice. You need to have a credit card to rent the bike from one of the many stations all over the city. There are stations every 300 meters and you can drop it off anywhere when you are done. Costs 1 eur for a day for unlimited bike usage of up to 30 minutes at a time. I think, however, that your card must have a chip on it to rent it, though I am not 100% certain if they have changed that yet or not.


Posted by: Nikolas | November 21, 2007 11:33 AM

We have been here, in Paris, since a week. For a person who is reasonably fit, Paris offers miles of walking pleasures. The sights and sounds of the city abound with life and I think not depending on public transport is an excellent way of absorbing the city

Posted by: Prasad | November 22, 2007 11:01 AM

I am leaving for Paris on Saturday, hopefully the strike will be over or at least somewhat settled by then. We were thinking of taking a taxi from the airport to the hotel, but this might not be the wisest choice? Any suggestions?

Posted by: Drew | November 27, 2007 3:52 PM

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