I am toying with the idea of taking a tour before Paris Brest Paris 2011. Yes I know it is way into the future, but the first qualifier is less than a month away so it is on my mind. Not only that, if I am going to pull this off I need to start saving my pennies today and I am trying to come up with an estimated total cost.
It will be a small expedition since we would have two adults, two kids, two tandems - one coupled, one not.
My read of the website http://www.seat61.com/index.html indicates that most European trains flat out don't take tandems. I am guessing that there is a way, just not an easy one.
I am considering flying into Amsterdam, riding towards Paris, shuttling to Nantes and riding the Loire Valley and then shuttling from, say, Orleans to Paris. We will have camping gear, so two fully loaded tandems (and one trailer) need transport.
My US "minivan" can accommodate everything without a problem, but I am thinking the train would be easier & cheaper if I can get the uncoupled tandem on. Also the thought of driving a behemoth like a US sized minivan into Paris frightens me.
The question is the "shuttles". Train or rental van?
Spec' Tarmac (road), Ridley Fenix (commuter & fast tourer), Salsa Mamasita (MTB), CoMo Speedster (tandem), Surly Big Dummy (cargo), Airnimal (folder)
We've taken our tandem on a lot of Swiss trains, and a few French ones. So, I can confirm that there is not a universal policy banning tandems from all French trains. However, whether it is feasible or not really depends on the specific train, and there is a lot of variation in that. Our tandem has couplers, and more often than not we split off the front third (easy to do if the couplers are in front of the captain's seat tube) to hang each part vertically from the hooks that are only high enough for single bikes. On some trains, there is an area for horizontal bike storage, and then the tandem normally fits without any disassembly, on some lines we know that this will be the case, but a lot of the time we don't know this until the train arrives. Some trains even have a goods wagon or guard's section where bikes should go, separate from the passenger compartments. These normally have loads of room, and so are not a problem with a complete tandem. Not knowing what to expect when the train arrives, and having a tandem without couplers could be a problem.
In France, you will probably have a choice between taking a TGV (fast train) or a standard regional train. Most TGVs have a bicycle compartment (but not all). The TGVs that I've used have all had hooks on the ceiling, with enough hanging space for single bikes, there may be enough space to put a complete tandem, or two, next to the wall in the small bicycle compartment, but I don't know whether they would allow this. You have to pay and reseverve the bicycle space on the TGVs, but not on the regional trains. The TGV passenger tickets will also cost more than the tickets for the regular trains, but some times you can get a special price for the TGV online, particularly if you book a couple of months ahead of time.
My best advice would be to try to contact the TGV (who operate the fast trains) and SNCF (who operate the regional trains) and see if they can offer you any info. However, don't be surprised if you have a hard time getting anything out of them. I also just found a useful link, with links to other info on taking bikes on trains in Europe, some of them specific to France, see here, in particular, there is a report from someone who successfully, but with some hassle, took a complete tandem on some regional trains in France.
It sounds like your experience with the French trains is not much different than mine here in the US. Basically, with a non-coupled tandem you have no idea if you can get the bike on until the train shows up and you actually get on. It all depends upon which cars make up the train, how many people are on it and how the conductor feels that day. All they can tell you is that you definitely might able to get the bike on the train.
I have some friends that are fluent in French and I will try to get some info out directly out of TGV or the SNCF.
We took our uncoupled C'dale mountain tandem on Swiss, German, French and Italian trains. We were able to get on all trains marked for bicycles and others not marked. We asked when buying tickets. Some had ample room and others not eg when we squashed across a corridor because we could not get around the corner into the bike comparment. No problem we simply lifted the bike above our shoulders to allow the coffee vendor to pass and eventually had the tandem vertically in a corner. But we were on no problem except for the height of some trains in relation to the platform. One was at least a metre up. At one point we had to change platforms at the last moment down and up steps with the trailer and all panniers - we made it.
In short in can be done with little notice but knowing ahead of time what to expect helps.
Having only experience with a coupled tandem in two suitcases, I can't offer much insight. I can tell you that it was difficult for us in Italy because they want you to store oversized luggage (tandem) in the car entry/exit area. There is no room in the passenger area. We couldn't find any cars that were marked specifically for accepting bikes.
Question for those with experience. If you are putting your tandem on a train that does accept bikes, do they just get stacked together? If so, do you pad your frame so it won't get trashed?