A Practical Guide to Rail Travel in Europe, Part 1 - Gare du Nord
Gare Du Nord - Introduction
In Europe these days tourists and locals alike can travel by rail, with relative ease, to a vast array of destinations, and in many cases do it faster and certainly with far less angst than by flying. The Trans-European Rail Network is an idea that is becoming reality, as the various national railways of the European Union become more and more "inter-operable". This plan still has some way to go, but it has certainly found its fullest expression already in Western Europe. The possibilities for the rail traveler are many, and, standing on the platform gazing into the distance, there is often a sense that one really could go anywhere. The experience of a journey by train can be like no other form of travel, and there is certainly no better place in Europe to begin such a journey than the station that sees more travelers arrive on and depart from its platforms than any other, Gare Du Nord in Paris.
Paris' six main line railway stations cater for different parts of France. Gare Du Nord (which translates as "North Station") is not so named for its location within Paris - Gare de l'Est - "East Station" is almost adjacent to it - but rather for the direction most of its outgoing services take (and logically therefore both stations are located in the north-eastern part of the city). As denoted by the statues on the station's impressive facade, trains leave from here to many points in northern France, but also on to Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany. In addition, and perhaps most famously these days, the Eurostar connects Gare Du Nord with St Pancras International in London, as well as with Brussels.
The station, with its imposing facade, is situated (see above) on the Rue De Dunkerque in Paris' 10th Arrondissement. Gare Du Nord is not really near any of the sights you've probably come to see - it's a little bit of a stroll to even the nearer classic tourist destinations such as the Louvre - and though it is certainly good exercise and walking the streets is all part of being in such a fabulous city like Paris, I certainly wouldn't recommend doing it with luggage. If you are just arriving in the city, you'll probably need another mode of mechanical transport to follow on with after you alight from your train and need to reach your lodgings.
Being the great hub that it is, there are a variety of ways to arrive at the station, be them from within the city or from elsewhere. Apart from over a dozen bus lines ("lignes"), taxis and feet, trains (rather unsurprisingly) provide the bulk of arrivals at Gare Du Nord, be that from within the city or further afield (more on specific rail services later). There are therefore, a variety of ways to both enter the station and move between its platforms (here's a good starter station layout). For many international travelers, Gare Du Nord will be the second railway station they will encounter in France if they are arriving at Charles De Gaulle Airport and subsequently boarding a train on one of the platforms located under the airport's terminals. This is also the case to a lesser extent with Paris' so-called "third airport" near Beauvais (though it is 85km from the city), and the airport is 4km from the relevant station.
There are several different types of train that run from or through Gare Du Nord, from the local Metro services through to the famous Eurostar. These services are listed here, along with a guide as to where they are found within the station. The departures board, by the way, is iconic, as the split-flap technology of decades past has miraculously avoided replacement by LEDs and the like, and survives to provide a happy touchstone to many a returning traveler. Special mention of course needs to be made of the Arrivals Board which has managed a similar achievement, but really hardly anyone feels the same sense of impending adventure with it that they experience with the Departures Board, for rather obvious reasons. But either way, hearing that "flipping" once again can be, if I may wax romantic for a moment, almost like coming home. Just before boarding a train and heading somewhere completely different of course.
The Eurostar to London has become THE journey to take while in Europe, and services to and from St Pancras International (as well as to Brussels) use platforms 3 to 6 (platforms 1& 2 are service platforms not open to the general public). Check-in and access to the Eurostar platforms is on Level 1, above the Hall Grandes Lignes (the main concourse), and is separated from the rest of the platforms due to the need for London-bound passengers to pass through a customs check before boarding. This is due to the fact that the United Kingdom is not part of the Schengen Zone, the collection of European nations between which there is now free transit across their borders. Services to Belgium are also accessed from here, though the border checks are not required.
Further international services (to Germany, The Netherlands and Belgium) are provided by the high-speed operator Thalys, which operates out of platforms 7 & 8 (at ground level as distinct from the Eurostar). Services operate to Belgium-Ostend in Belgium, Rotterdam-Amsterdam in The Netherlands, and Essen in Germany (with stops at Aachen, Cologne and Dusseldorf). There exist plans to provide competition to the Eurostar to London, though ambitions to use the Essen-Frankfurt high-speed line for extending the Thalys service further into Germany were stymied by an incompatibility between German power generation methodology and the requirements of a Thalys train set operating at high speed. Thalys' most popular sector is Paris-Brussels, so much so that commercial air travel between the two cities has been all but obliterated. Air France, for example, no longer flies between Paris and Brussels, but instead tickets passengers on the 1hr 22min Thalys service.
French long-distance services
On platforms 9 to 18 will be found services to the north of France, provided by a variety of trains. TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) trains, operated by the French national operator SNCF, have been a major success story since the launch of the first service to Lyon in 1981, and these days form the backbone of long-distance rail travel in France. From Gare Du Nord they operate at high speed to Lille and Dunkerque (i.e. in English Dunkirk) and nearby locations in the north (see here). Several northern French towns can also be accessed by what are now referred to by SNCF as Intercités services, which essentially groups together all remaining non high-speed distance trains. Two lines operate from Gare Du Nord, and these may be of interest to the tourist, in particular the service to Boulogne-sur-Mer on the Channel which stops at Amiens, about 120km north of Paris, with its famous cathedral, as well as the nearby First World War battlefields of the Somme. Also headquartered in Amiens is the regional operator TER Picardie, which serves Picardy in depth and operates four services from Gare Du Nord. Some of these services use platforms 19-21 and, for the Paris-Beauvais service, platforms between 30 and 36. As previously mentioned, the Beauvais service may be significant to the traveler as this is the location of the airport used budget air carriers such as Ryanair, and styled as a Paris gateway despite its distant location.
To sum up the local rail connections to Gare Du Nord, there are three - the Paris Metro, The RER, and another set of services called the Transilien (which shares platforms 30 to 36 with the service to Beauvais). Broadly speaking, each has its own function - the 16 lines of the Metro service that area within the arrondissements, the "city" of Paris. Lignes 4 and 5 have stops at Gare Du Nord (their platforms are underground and are reached by connecting tunnel). The Transilien serves the "suburbs" beyond the arrondissements where 80% of Paris' population live and is perhaps less of relevance to most tourists, but the five lines of the Réseau Express Régional (RER), or Regional Express Network, are definitely significant and, while they tend toward longer express journeys the RER operates both within the city and the surrounding region of Île-de-France. Three of its lines are of relevance to Gare Du Nord:
Line B: This is the line that connects Gare Du Nord with Charles De Gaulle Airport. This line does not terminate at Gare Du Nord, but does connect here with the Lines 4 and 5 of the Paris Metro already mentioned, and goes on to connect with other Metro lines as it crosses eastern Paris.
In reference to this line, it should also be noted that while the trains on this line do begin and terminate their journeys at the airport terminals, they do not necessarily run with arriving air travellers in mind. While some of the services are express from the airport direct to Gare Du Nord and take about 30 minutes to do so, others stop at a number of suburban stations in between the airport and the Arrondisements that make up the Paris of the tourist. One's first view of Paris coming from this direction is likely to be a view of the less-than-picture postcard northern suburbs, observed while holding your luggage close in a train fairly packed with locals.
Line D: useful as it provides a quick connector to Gare De Lyon, for transfers to services heading to southern and eastern France. In the other direction, for the sports-minded, Line D heads to the Stade-de-France in Saint-Denis.
Line E: This line, constructed in 1999, passes between Gare Du Nord and the neighbouring Gare de l'Est, and has a station, Magenta, between the two termini. Apart from providing a dedicated corridor for foot traffic between the two main stations, Line E also provides a quick connection to another of Paris' main stations, Gare Saint-Lazare (via the station Haussman Saint Lazare). The platforms for the RER lines are underground and accessed from both the main hall and from the street to the right of the original building.
It might seem all little bit daunting to change between services and platforms (and tickets), but with a little patience and exploration it can become as easy to manage as it is for millions of Parisians every day.
Gare Du Nord departures board in the process of flipping: photo by mmechtley
Eurostar, Thalys and TGV
Gare Du Nord Train Station: photo by simononly
Down to the RER and Metro
Paris Gare Du Nord: photo by yisris