France has two kinds of intercity trains. For shorter distances or smaller towns, or where the high-speed network hasn’t been built yet there are slower trains, the TER and Intercités trains. (Still fast by North American standards.) This post is about first class on these slower intercity trains.
For the slower trains, there are 1st and 2nd classes, but there is no point in getting 1st class. (Disclaimer: At least for trips less than 2 hours, which is what I was taking. I was on 8 trains in total, three different routes.)
France has also been building out a high-speed network, the TGV trains. This connects major cities, across long distances, but is not complete yet. You can see the current lines in blue on this official map or download a detailed PDF map (15MB).
UPDATE 2015-04-11: While the TGV does have a first-class service, it has many similar characteristics to the TER – mostly you’re paying for a bit more space. There may not be a lounge, and there’s no food service. ENDUPDATE
Here’s a handy comparison chart, between Canada’s VIA Business Class (used to be called VIA 1), and French TER/Intercités 1ère classe
[Extensive rewrite of above section.] ENDUPDATE
|feature||Canada VIA Business Class||France TER/Intercités 1ère classe|
|dedicated car(s)||yes||no, usually half 1st, half 2nd|
|located for ease of detraining and/or boarding||yes, usually front of train, or near entrance||no|
|baggage area||yes, large||sometimes a tiny (2 bag) one|
|lots of room for mid-size bags above seat||yes||no, a purse or small bag at most|
|seats offer extra space, better materials||yes||no|
|free drinks||yes||no, no service at all|
|included meal and snacks||yes||no, no food whatsoever|
In summary: French TER/Intercités 1st class is a more expensive version of 2nd class, I’m guessing mostly intended to separate business travelers from regular travelers. It is in no other way better than 2nd class. You end up walking along the train trying to find the first class car (or usually the first class part of a car, indicated by a 1 and an arrow), and then jamming yourself in, no different from second class.
Don’t get me wrong, the French TER/Intercités intercity trains are great. Service is frequent and many towns and even villages have stations. Almost all stations are in the town centre. Just don’t bring a big bag (you will have a hard time even finding space for a carry-on rolling bag) and don’t bother with first class. And buy any food and drink you may want before you get on the train. If there are 3+ of you traveling together, you can try to get to the cars as soon as they announce the track, and look to see if the 4-person tables are available and go in and grab them.
UPDATE 2013-07-02: If you want to know more about the French train network see the complete page of maps from RFF (the rail infrastructure operator) as well as the list of projects. (Linked to French pages as the English pages are out-of-date.)