Travelling by rail in Europe

A sad reality of long distance rail travel in Europe is that low cost airlines mean that it is usually more expensive than flying, although by the time you factor in the costs of getting to and from airports, checking in (RyanAir charge you for this), selecting a seat (if possible), taking luggage, having a usually unpleasant and overpriced snack on board, and if Michael O'Leary of RyanAir is to be believed, having a pee,  then the gap narrows.  There's also a value in travelling in a more civilised manner!

Nice to St Pancras, London

Typically to get from Nice to any of a multitude of UK airports will cost between €30 and €200 in each direction,  depending on the season and advance booking period.  There are direct flights to several London airports, and a number of regionals, even to the Channel Islands.  Some of these flights are seasonal, with many Northern destinations being dropped this winter,  and even in season don't operate daily,  so although there appears to be a wide offering, the choice narrows on any specific date and as capacity drops, the price increase.  The longest sector is 3 hours, against which just to get to Paris is 6 hours by train – but more of that later.  So despite the ghastliness of flying, and it's really the airport experience which is so horrendous, rather than the time in the air, it tends to win hands down in terms of speed, particularly going to the UK. 

Flying out of the UK has become awful in recent years, with brainless officious 'security officers' everywhere, long immigration queues and an undercurrent of aggression and the 'compensation' culture.  I was recently threatened by a 'security official' at Luton Airport for taking a friend's hand baggage away for him after the check in woman said it was too big,  whilst allowing others with larger items through.  The irony was that I wasn't even travelling, but had gone to the airport to see them off.  When I defended my rights, the woman told me that if I got 'gobby' (her word) she'd prevent me from flying , which I wasn't doing anyway. In fairness, although I shun the airline for other reasons,  I must say that BA's new terminal 5 at Heathrow is very civilised and well designed.

Typically a ticket from Antibes to Eurostar's London St. Pancras terminus will cost between €100 and €300, depending on the season, advance purchase period, and flexibility required in the ticket.  The lowest I've found for a one way is €112,  but I am told that much lower fares exist – I've never seen them.  The journey time is around 9 hours, a typical departure being at 0955, with a two hour connection in Paris between Gare de Lyon and Gare du Nord, arriving at St. Pancras at 1830.  On some days it is possible to connect via Lille Europe,  a purpose built station offering a simple and painless connection whilst the Paris connection, particularly northbound, is far from pleasant.

A useful tip for booking rail tickets in, to, and from France on the recently improved SNCF website is to note that very often, when the booking is made more than 14 days in advance, 1st. class is available for only slightly more than 2nd. class, and sometimes even less, although the tickets are often non-changeable and non-refundable.

TGV through France

The TGV crawls along the south coast of France on normal track, taking about 3 hours to do the first 160 or so kilometres to Marseilles or Avignon,  until it hits the dedicated high speed track and runs at the designed speed of about 300 kph, reaching Paris Gare de Lyon in another 2 hours.  A new TGV line is planned to complete the existing one through to Nice, and after much controversy the route, along the coast to serve the main population centres, has been finalised with completion is scheduled for 2025 and that's 'normallement', which means considerably less than 'Insha' Allah'. This will cut the journey time from the current 6 hours down to about 4.

Arrival at Paris Gare de Lyon is the beginning of the worst part of the journey due to the need to change stations in Paris from Gare de Lyon to Gare du Nord. It's a short journey, 2 stops on the RER suburban train, but the stations are badly designed with long passageways, up and down stairs and escalators, poor and complicated signposting, very few officials to help, and the need to queue to buy a €1.60 RER ticket from a machine, the use of which is far from intuitive even if you understand French.  The RER is usually crowded and smelly and there is no luggage space, meaning you have to stand close to the doors to guard your suitcase as people squeeze on and off the train at the intermediate stop.  Not an appropriate way to connect between two supposedly prestige services, although of course there is the option of a taxi, which with Paris traffic can be a slow option, although most connections are timetabled with at least 90 minutes between trains, and even this may not be adequate.  Paris taxi drivers have a dubious reputation for honesty although to be fair I've found that if you speak even a little French and ask them in advance how much the fare is there will rarely be a problem, but to really enjoy the Paris taxi experience you have to be a lover of the subtly blended aromas of body odour and stale garlic breath along with the whiff of Gauloises and petrol fumes.

The Eurostar arrangements at Paris Nord are inadequate for the number of departing trains and passengers. Squalid, disorganised, and inefficient would be a fair description, particularly when compared to the the splendid and spotlessly clean St. Pancras terminal. On the last date that I used the service, the queue for check in and passport control (French and UK passport control are both carried out here) were so long and slow that our train was delayed by 40 minutes. Possibly the French passport control were on some kind of strike, work-to-rule, or go-slow, but this is such a normal situation in France, a country which is frequently brought to its knees by the trade unions until the government capitulates, that they should cope with this with practised ease.

London to Paris is about 150 minutes, with the train slowing to a crawl before entering the Channel Tunnel, presumably to allow the illegal immigrants and bogus asylum seekers time to attach themselves comfortably to the underside of the carriages with the blessing of the French authorities who are happy to see the back of them as they head for the UK to take advantage of the more generous social security system there. 

Not all good

It never fails to amaze me that the French, who pride themselves (justifiably) on running an excellent rail network, and (unjustifiably) on the best food in the world, are unable to provide a decent meal in a dining car on their trains,  as do most other European rail operators.  French long distance trains have a 'buffet' car selling canned drinks, dinky bottles of wine, packets of chips, biscuits, and ghastly pre-cooked cheese sandwiches (they call it a 'croque monsieur') which are partially heated in a microwave to make them warm and soggy, and served on a paper plate. 

Travelling southbound from London St. Pancras to France is a lot more pleasant, as check in and both sets of passport control take place at the clean and efficient London terminus,  which offers a plethora of shops, restaurants, bars, and service points which are manned by friendly multilingual (mostly Eastern European) staff.  Changing onto the TGV network at Lille is a better option than Paris,  but going from Paris Nord to Gare de Lyon to join the TGV is not as unpleasant as doing the northbound journey as there are no check in formalities for the TGV. 

The fundamental problem with rail travel in Europe is that despite the so-called 'joined-up' Europe,  the railway operators lag behind when it comes to seamless cross border travel, the exceptions being, as one might expect, the Swiss, the Germans, and the Dutch. Trying to use the internet to plan or book cross border travel can be a daunting affair,  although there are some helpful websites, the best of all being www.seat61.com which is run by a rail enthusiast, Paul Smith, and contains details of rail services all over the world and is well worth looking at just to enjoy the photographs and descriptions of some of the services. There are links for booking and I assume that Paul derives some revenue from that, and as he maintains the site at his own expense,  I would urge people to support him.

The Swiss example

I also recommend the Swiss railways website (www.sbb.ch) as it is clear and well designed and although it is designed for journeys within, to/from and via Switzerland, it also shows many, but not all,  services which don't touch Switzerland.

I often travel from Southern France to Zurich and the contrast between the beautiful Swiss trains which operate the Milan-Zurich segment and the square-wheeled Italian piece of crap which judders painfully along the Milan-Nice leg is incredible.  The Italian trains are invariably late, overcrowded (seats double-booked), dirty, smelly, and dilapidated.  The catering is so bad that starvation seems a welcome alternative, and I would advise anyone using this service to take their own food and drink, as well as a supply of handwipes and toilet paper.  Yes, it is that bad, in fact …. it's worse!  Add to this the Italian habit of being permanently on cellphones with conversations shouted at full volume,  and a word of warning that the Milano Centrale terminus is swarming with agile pickpockets and gifted con artists. The only good thing about rail travel in Italy is that it is very cheap and the network is dense and frequent.

I recently travelled on the new flagship service, the Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) from Rome to Milan and this was a different experience. The train departed a few minutes late and lost more time, arriving 40 minutes late, but it was clean and comfortable, with the booked passengers were all crowded into the front 2 carriages leaving the rest of the train empty, as presumably the booking system fills the train from the front. 

In complete contrast,  travelling in Germany and Austria is a delight,  with a synchronised network of high speed and local trains and buses, scenic routes, and excellent meals in proper dining cars available on board the long distance trains.  The tariff system is complex as different classes of train carry supplements over and above the base fare, and travelling on a 'Zuschlag Zug' without the correct ticket will attract the interest of the conductor who will politely and efficiently levy an on the spot fine (und zey all speak English!

Other options

Recently, needing to travel from Southern England to Madrid,  I decided to take the ferry (www.brittanyferries.com) from Portsmouth to Santander in northern Spain.  It was a pleasant experience, a 24 hour minicruise with entertainment, every possible comfort, and good food. At least the French have got the catering on the ferry right, it was outstanding. 

From there  I took a train to Madrid, one of RENFE's new Alvia trains which run at normal speed on normal track through the mountains of Asturias, and then to about 260 kph on highspeed track, completing the journey to Madrid in 4 ½ hours.  The first class ticket cost about €80 and included a good airline style lunch, with a choice of courses and plenty of drinks too!  Excellent value for the small difference from the second class fare, the only thing spoiling the comfortable journey being the presence of two women continually yammering into cellphones and repeating the same inconsequential crap over and over again.  It might have been less irritating if I didn't understand Spanish!

 Later in the week I had to get to Lisbon and naturally would have preferred the rail option.  Only one train links the 2 cities,  the Lusitania Express,  a Talgo Hotel Train operated jointly by RENFE and CP, leaving Madrid late at night and arriving in Lisbon just before 0800. A second class seat is about €80 and although first class seats and 'preference' class berths exist for only a little more, there was nothing available other than a First Class single which would have cost over €240, so as I'm not a great fan of overnight trains anyway, I reluctantly flew, saving time and money, for €60.  Whilst in Lisbon I did a little travelling on the excellent and inexpensive local services to Estoril, Cascais, and Sintra, all well worth visiting.

Travelling by train in Europe is a rich tapestry and a varied one.  At worst, it's a way of seeing the scenery and meeting the locals even if the conditions are verging on squalid, and at best it's a truly relaxing and comfortable experience.  

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© Mike Preston, Riviera Reporter

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