At least, I think so.
Today being day 2 our planned 3-day journey home, we set off from Foix at 8:00 AM, our destination for today being Chartres, 440mls/700kms north.
400 miles of our journey today would be on autoroutes which, early-ish on a Saturday morning, started relatively quietly. We even made it round the potential trouble spot of Toulouse smoothly. However, having begun our holiday on a “black” Saturday [France’s heaviest driving days – extremely difficult driving], we were now heading back north two weeks later along with a whole bunch of people whose holiday had finished and were now driving home. Today may not have been a “black” day but it was a “red” day [France’s second heaviest driving days – very difficult driving].
Toll roads may seem expensive to those of us with very few in our home territory but the tolls do help to keep the traffic down and, out of season, make for blissfully easy driving. They do have a problem, though, in the form of les gares de payage [toll booths].
The start of a toll section begins with a toll booth where you take a ticket; this is usually no problem – drive up, ticket emerges, grab it, barrier raises, proceed. Problems begin at the end of a toll section where the payment booths are situated. Paying takes a little longer, especially for the home team who seem dead set against using anything as simple/swift as a credit card. Oh no, the French generally insist on paying cash which takes a lot longer. This process causes tailbacks even in normal traffic. In heavy traffic it causes long tailbacks. This has become exacerbated by automation/modernization which takes about twice as long as the old hand-your-ticket-and-payment-over-to-a-warm-body approach. At our first major toll booth, there were about 12 lanes operating, all with queues of 20+ vehicles waiting to pay. Each payment takes ~30secs minimum even if Francois Frenchman gets everything right, which he normally doesn’t. You can do the maths.
Having said that the taking of a ticket at the start of a toll section is usually no problem there are exceptions. At Vierzon, we ran into a very big exception. Electronic boards warned of a bouchon [blockage] at the gare de payage. The 2-lane autoroute fans out into ~8 lanes to take a ticket. Those 8-ish lanes then funnel back into 2 lanes immediately after the toll booths. A this very point, a new autoroute spurs off. 90% of the traffic seemed to want to take the rightmost lane to change autoroute. Consequently, 8 lanes were trying to funnel into one. With the French approach to merging, you can imagine the chaos. We did get to Chartres but about an hour later than we had anticipated.
Apart from lesson #1, not going to France during the French holiday season, lesson #2 should be, if you insist on going during holiday season, travel during the weekdays with all the trucks as opposed to at weekends with all the outbound/inbound holiday makers.
I haven’t put that theory to the test and I’m not likely to. It wouldn’t, after all, have cured our Bordeaux problem when heading south, but it sounds good.