Saturday, 11 December 2010

A Train in the Ass

In the last six or so weeks I've caught about 14 intercity trains (mostly overnight), a couple of flights, had dozens of metro and taxi rides, and even an overnight ship voyage.
All of them have pretty much run as smooth as clockwork. I'm *ahem* not normally known for my punctuality, yet somehow I've managed to get myself on board on time every single time. Despite ridiculously cold temperatures, thick snow, and a reputation for dodginess, the trains in Russia always ran on time and there was never a single hiccup. China was even more efficient, Mongolia was no problem, in Vietnam the luxuries were a bit rough round the edges but the logistics were faultless. And Finland and Germany were, as you'd expect, as precise and efficient as a Swiss watch. A quick change of trains in Amsterdam went as smooth as silk too.
But then in Brussels it was time to change trains and board my first French train. Everything went downhill from there...

I was supposed to catch a train from Brussels to Lyon and then after a 25 minute wait switch to another train bound for Toulouse.
I'd already been on two trains that day (Hanover to Amsterdam, then Amsterdam to Brussels), so everything had to go like clockwork in order to get to Toulouse that evening. So far so good. I had made it to Brussels on time.
But then the train to Lyon was 15 minutes late arriving. And then when we got on, it took another half hour before we left the station. I knew it would be tight, but the train from Hanover to Amsterdam managed to make up for 20 minutes of lost time during the trip, so it was still possible to make the connection in Lyon.
But then things just kept getting worse. We got delayed more and more, stopping longer at stations and sometimes just stopping completely in the middle of nowhere. By the time my connecting train in Lyon left, we were still two hours away with no idea how many more delays would occur.

Thankfully the train conductor was being as helpful as he could, and spoke very good English. He would have been very helpful, except he was being kept in the dark as much as the passengers. But he made a note of the passengers with connections and tried as best he could to sort something out for us and keep us all informed.
Eventually we were told NOT to get off at Lyon as planned, but instead to continue to Valence where a different train on its way from Paris would make an unscheduled stop to pick us up and take us to Toulouse. Great! That sounds like an excellent contingency plan.

So, I get off the train at the small station of Valence along with a dozen other passengers, and we go looking for someone to ask about this connection.
Well, firstly it seems not a single member of staff speaks a word of English. So I go hunting for a passenger who is also heading my way so I can just follow them around. It turns out there are four of us bound for to Toulouse, and one of them speaks excellent English. Thank you Mathilde, you are a lifesaver!
Eventually we managed to find the station master and to our surprise, he knew nothing of any connecting train or any special arrangements. He wasn't particularly sympathetic about anybody's situation, nor did he offer any help. One lady who was stranded and left to catch a very long and expensive taxi to her destination (as was explained to me later) was arguing that SNCF should pay for her taxi, and the station master was just telling her to stop complaining and go. She almost got into a fist fight with the him, but to my surprise instead of trying to diffuse the situation, the station master started shouting back and got up in her face, ready to have a go back! A security guard had to come and separate them.
Welcome to France.
Eventually we were loaded onto the next train to come by which happened to be bound for Montpellier, where at least some of the passengers were supposed to go. Nobody really trusted the Station Master's advice, and we knew it didn't really matter where this train was going, he just wanted us out of his hair. But that's all right, we wanted to get out out of there too. This would still be two hours from Toulouse, but at least we were getting closer. It was after 9pm by this time though, and it would be too late for us to get to Toulouse that day.
So we finally arrive at Montpellier, and thankfully the station master here was expecting us. For the four of us bound for Toulouse, we were given vouchers to stay in the hotel across the road from the station for the night and assured we would be taken to Toulouse the next day.
Luckily I didn't really have any plans for the next day, so what began as an annoying delay was beginning to turn into a little adventure that allowed me to spend an unexpected day in Montpellier. I didn't need to get to Toulouse until the following afternoon. I also found that being a spectator to all these goings-on was an interesting insight into the French problem-solving psyche. It seems that getting upset, yelling, and threatening employees might not solve any actual problems at hand, but it definitely makes the shouter feel better getting things off their chest. It didn't matter that I could only understand one word in ten. It didn't really matter if anyone could understand any of it.
So eventually the four of us all trundled our bags across the road and checked into our hotel, imaginatively called "l'Otel" which for the less worldly among us translates loosely as "The Hotel".
The staff had put about as much creativity into the decor of this hotel as they had it's name, but that didn't worry us. It was 11pm and we were all sick and tired of all the stress of dealing with trains and SNCF, but despite being weary, we were also still wide awake.
So I tried a trick I was shown by a Russian fireman on the trans-siberian railway. Here was my chance to do something in front of 3 strangers that I probably wouldn't do back in Australia. It's a pretty simple trick. It just involves pulling a hip flask of vodka and 4 shot glasses out of my bag and offering everyone a drink. But the trick is in the approach. You must be friendly and approachable, but you don't want to really give them a choice.

And so the night turned from total disaster into a great night of laughter, and four stranded travelers became friends, if only for a night.
Thanks to my Finnish and Estonian friends I was lucky to be carrying a fully-stocked bottle shop with me at the time, so we drank some Estonian Vanna Tallinn, some Finnish Salmaikki, and some good old Russian Vodka. These new French friends of mine probably thought I was an alcoholic, but who cares. Take that SNCF! It takes more than your incompetence to ruin our day. Epic win.

I slept in the next morning and checked out of the hotel around noon. Then spent a few hours wandering around Montpellier, grabbing some lunch at the christmas market and even looking at a very cool exhibition by the American photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard.
Then I wandered back to the train station thinking the 2 minute job of organizing a replacement ticket for today should take no longer than 40 minutes (allowing for language barriers and miscellaneous holdups). But of course I was being too optimistic, and after 55 minutes of queuing and trying to explain things, I missed the train I was hoping to get. There was another (slower) train just 30 minutes later which I caught, but it was just enough to give SNCF the last laugh. Fail.

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1 comment:

  1. I got stranded in Scunthorpe a few weeks ago (exotic sounding isn't it) and there was a BA flight attendant who had come back with Christmas gifts stranded with us, I was trying to persuade her to open the Grey Goose Vodka! She wasn't having it though!