Watching TGVs From Trackside
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What's this all about?
IF YOU FIND yourself in Paris at any time, you can discover the TGV in one afternoon and less than $80. A ride at 300 km/h (186 mph) is certainly a nice way to experience these trains, but why not try for more? Get ready for a unique train watching experience. Stand next to the track and see a rocket on rails thunder by you at full speed! With this objective in mind, I recommend visiting a small station a bit north of Paris, in the fields of the Picardy region. This otherwise uninteresting stop, named TGV Haute-Picardie, is one of the best viewing sites in all of France to do some high speed train watching.
TGV Haute-Picardie belongs to a rare breed of stations: it is located directly on a high speed line, with platforms just a few meters from the TGV Nord-Europe tracks. Only a handful of trains stop there each day; most pass on through without slowing. The surrounding scenery is somewhat surprising for a train station; beyond the parking lot, wind-swept beet fields stretch as far as the eye can see... there isn't a building for miles around, except for the station itself. The reason is this: TGV Haute-Picardie is the child of a sterile political controversy, revolving around which of two nearby cities should have got TGV service. The conflict was artfully resolved by the French government with a compromise: the station was built in between, or to be exact, in the middle of nowhere. For what this station is otherwise worth, it is without doubt a great place to watch TGVs, which is precisely the matter that concerns us here.
The easiest way to get there from Paris is, you guessed it, by TGV. A clear and unimpeded view of the track in both directions, fresh air, protection from rain and weather, good natural light, and nearby restrooms are all factors which contribute to making this station what it is. What's more, several types of TGV trains can be seen here; beside the garden-variety TGV Réseau, how about a few Eurostar or Thalys trainsets?
Out on the platform, all is quiet, except for the wind and the droning of trucks on the nearby A1 highway. Your eye quickly gets bored of the empty platforms, the lonely station building, the endless fields, and comes to rest at the vanishing point, a distant convergence of rails, catenary masts, and wires. Suddenly, a point of light... three points of light, in a rapidly growing triangle. The rails twitch with sound for a few short seconds, and frightfully quickly the beast is upon you in a deafening roar! Before your senses can take it all in, two red tail lights recede into the distance and the quiet returns, with only a faint squeaking from the still bouncing wires above. Vanishing point to vanishing point in less than twenty seconds... you'll have to repeat the experience several times; it goes far beyond a smooth and quiet ride aboard a TGV. Luckily, there is a lot of traffic on the lines, on average a train about every five minutes.
(394KB QuickTime 4 Movie)
Dan Ross tried this trip on 28 February 2000 and filmed the trains from the platforms at TGV Haute-Picardie. The clip shows first a double trainset passing in the direction of Paris, followed immediately by a northbound trainset. Of course a compressed video like this does not come anywhere close to the sight and sound of the real thing, but it does give a good preview.
Sounds like fun? The following itinerary should make an interesting excursion for TGV fans of all kinds, from the foreign tourist to the jaded Parisian nervous wreck. From downtown Paris, the trip costs about 400FF full fare return (or $80, less if you have a railpass) and can be done in as little as three hours start to finish.
The Total TGV Trip
...which I suggest to you goes roughly like this:
The detour to the airport TGV station was necessary when I did this trip, since none of the TGVs out of Paris Gare du Nord stopped at Haute Picardie at the time. However, it appears that as of summer 1997 there exist a few direct TGVs from Paris Nord to Haute Picardie-- Check the schedules. It may still be easier to go via the airport.
- Start at Paris Gare du Nord, look at standing TGV trains
- Take RER to the Charles de Gaulle airport TGV station
- Take a TGV to the Haute-Picardie station
- Spend time watching TGVs speed by
- Return to CDG airport by TGV
- Return to downtown Paris by RER
Step One: Do a little planning with some TGV timetables. These are available as guide booklets at all Paris stations, near the ticket office. You want to get the timetables for the TGV Nord-Europe, Thalys, and Eurostar. Thalys and Eurostar timetables are available on the web. You will be leaving from Paris Aéroport Charles de Gaulle TGV and arrive at TGV Haute-Picardie. Your train is a TGV Nord-Europe, serving the Nord Pas de Calais from the Ile de France region. Travel time is about 28 minutes but trains that stop at Haute-Picardie are quite infrequent (only two per afternoon), so be careful with your timing. Plan to stay there for about an hour; you'll probably get bored if you stay longer, unless you're crazier than I. Once you have decided on your arrangements to get to TGV Haute-Picardie, you can use the timetables to estimate when trains will pass by. As a rule of thumb, the station is about 32 minutes from Paris-Nord; use this fact to deduce your own schedule of passing times at Haute-Picardie. This schedule will come in handy once there, since you will first be able to see an oncoming train's headlights only about 10 seconds before it reaches you. It's good to know what's coming from what direction and when.
Step Two: I recommend starting from the Paris Gare du Nord station, which is easily accessible by public transportation. You can purchase your ticket here (about 290FF return, or $58, in second class) and then go watch standing TGV trains from the station platforms. Paris Nord, a busy station, has the most diverse TGV fauna to be found in Paris: you will see Réseau and Thalys trainsets, and also Eurostar trainsets which are unfortunately isolated behind glass walls.
Step Three: Go to the basement of the station to take the RER to the Charles de Gaulle airport TGV station. The RER is not a TGV; it is a suburban commuter train. Purchase your return trip to the airport (about 92FF, or $18) and take the B3 line, direction Roissy / Aéroport Charles de Gaulle. Trains are frequent, about every 15 minutes, and take you to the Charles de Gaulle 2 / TGV station, the end stop of the line, in about 30 to 45 minutes. A few minutes out of Paris, try to catch a glimpse of the Landy shops, to the left of the train, one of the major TGV maintenance bases. Remember that CDG airport has two RER stops; get off at the second. Once there, validate your TGV ticket and transfer to the TGV platforms, where information screens will tell you where to wait.
Step Four: Take your TGV up to the Haute-Picardie station... you will be on the LGV (Ligne à Grand Vitesse, or high speed line) Interconnexion for a few kilometers, and then connect to the LGV Nord which goes all the way to Lille and the Channel tunnel. You'll ride about 100 km, with a top speed of 300 km/h, and the trip will take 28 minutes. If you're new to the TGV, take this time to nose around and explore.
Step Five: Hang out in the fields of Picardy... The west (northbound) platforms are best for viewing in the afternoon; the light is better for photography. It's usually pretty windy, so dress for it. There are four tracks through the station; the center two are the active high speed tracks. This puts a few meters between you and passing trains, probably for the better. Platform clocks will give you the time, and if you've done your schedule right you'll know where to look and what type of train will go by next.
Step Six: Return to Paris by reversing the steps you took to get here.
Also of Interest...
If you haven't had your fill of high speed action, take the Metro to the La Villette science museum in Paris (line 7, Porte de La Villette). In the basement there is a public library with video viewing stations connected to a videotape server. Without charge you can view a large selection of TGV-related videos covering a range of subjects from the speed records to catenary design... This treasure trove is not to be missed! Be advised however that they are all in French.
Feedback and Advice
Useful advice from several people who tried this trip and lived to write about it!
Charles Spencer, March 1997:
The itinerary and suggestions were excellent in practice. In particular, the advice to consult the timetable for stopping trains carefully so as not to stay there too long was right on.
The only amendment I would make would be not to worry too much about having schedules saying what trains would be coming through from what directions. It's true that I was there on a very clear day, but I had had some problem getting timetables at the Gare du Nord/Est; in any event, I could see trains approaching Haute-Picardie a long way away (in distance, not time!), and there were so many that I was well amused. (Headway as little as 3-4 minutes on occasion.) I would add that this trip is probably much more fruitful on a weekday (my experience), than on a weekend day, judging by the schedules. A midday trip, with the sun high, is also recommended. I was there from about noon to 1:30pm.
Bob Tomasko, May 1997:
I've ridden (the TGV) many times, but not until last week did I stand on a platform as several passed at speed. What an experience! I did this while overcoming jet lag and changing planes at CDG. The 10:54 departure from CDG and 13:08 return from HP worked very well.
You provided an excellent description of what to expect. The Thomas Cook European schedules provided most of the information needed about trains to and from Paris Nord.
I suggest TGV fans bring along their own beverages and food; the only thing provided at the station was from vending machines.
Trevor Moss, July 1997:
I had something like 1 hour 40 mins on Haute Picardie which was just a nice amount of time. I can see myself going back there again sometime in the future, I enjoyed it so much. You are right in you what you say about having to be quick with the camera !!. To film an oncoming train I found I had to have my fingers on the camcorder buttons and be on constant lookout all the time, in order not to miss the trains approach.
Claudio Bellon, May 1998
Your suggestions are perfect for a day of train watching! I had hoped to see the yellow mail trains, but had no luck. [Note: the La Poste trainsets are not used on this line -CT] The weather was lousy (about 9 or 10 Celsius and a windy drizzle), but the show was superlative, with over 20 trains in 1-1/2 hours. I was surprised to see heavy and continuous sparks on the pantographs, but it is resonable when you consider the high voltage and oscillation of the catenary. I really enjoyed my day and heartily recommend this train watching spot to anyone visiting Paris.
Nikolaus Rieskamp, January 1999
It is great out there, but it is useful to watch the weather on TV first. I had a very foggy day wich made it impossible to observe a distance of more than 200 meters. You hear the train shortly before you see it. But if you know to handle that with your camera (you have to be faster than Lucky Luke with his gun), you can make fantastic photos! If you arrive at the wrong time, there may be no trains at all so reading timetables first becomes very important!
If you have tried this trip, or if you have any suggestions, please email me. All photos in this page by C. Tillier
A Thalys PBA trainset passing at 300 km/h on the northbound track, 03 September 96. Gotta be faster on that camera button!
The 18:23 TGV to Rennes pulling up to the southbound platform, 03 September 96
Last modified: April 2000