Thursday, 12 December 2013

SNCF industrial (in)action - Oh joy!

Friends on Facebook (and there aren't that many of them, I have to admit) might know that, in a manner of speaking,  I've recently put the car "out to pasture".

On seconds thoughts, perhaps winter hibernation would be more appropriate.

I'm tired of driving the length and breadth of the country, inevitably getting stuck in rush hour Paris traffic and/or motorway tailbacks.

Besides, now the days are shorter, I'm not that keen on having to drive when it's dark.

So instead I've had to rely on public transport.


Now, as I have a fear of flying, and in spite of taking two courses over the years with both Lufthansa and Air France to cope with my anxiety, I try to avoid it if I can.

So my travel options have been limited to...well, the train.

And the least that can be said is that over the past couple of months I've had some less than magical mystery tours courtesy of SNCF.

First up there was an hour's delay on an outward bound trip from Toulouse to Paris.

The usual platitudes were offered in the form of a half-meant apology while on the train and an email to inform me afterwards that SNCF "regretted any inconvenience but as the delay had not been sufficiently long they would not be offering any compensation".

In oither words, even though I hadn't asked for anything, I was being told to get stuffed if I even contemplated the notion of complaining.

All well and good.

Service at its desperate worst.

The return trip proved to be no better with the TGV (now there's a pseudo-acronym surely) coming to a halt several times on its journey from Paris to Bordeaux and then crawling along at its usual snail's pace's to complete the final 210 or so kilometres to Toulouse.

Yep, SNCF has the trains but not the track to serve France's fourth largest city.

Some sort of power failure on the line meant that the train was, "40 hour...90 minutes...and finally three hours behind schedule" as the guard helpfully informed passengers.

A few days later there was another email from SNCF once again "apologising for any inconvenience" but this time offering 50 per cent off the purchase of my next ticket.

I would rather have had a flat screen television (I've been living with the current monster for the past 15 years) but that's another story.

Fast forward a fortnight and there I am happily keeping my Facebook "friends" informed (why do I do that? It's akin to posting pictures of food...a practice of which I'm also guilty) of my progress on another Paris-Toulouse return trip.

"Just leaving Bordeaux," I wrote. "And we're ON TIME." Words I should never have uttered, albeit it virtually.

"Ladies and gentlemen. Your attention please," began the announcement over the train's tannoy.

"After an accident at a level crossing at Castelsarrasin, all circulation on the lines to and from Toulouse has been suspended for an indefinite  period. This train will now terminate at Agen. I repeat, this train will now terminate at Agen. Buses will be laid on to allow passengers to continue their journeys to Montauban and Toulouse. SNCF would like to apologise for any inconvenience and thank you for your understanding (as if we had any sort of alternative)."

You could hear the collective groan. This was bang in the middle of the school holidays and the train was heaving.

A chance for SNCF to pull out all the stops and prove it really was the master of improvisation when faced with the unexpected.

Yeah. Right.

Picture the scene. Agen. A train full of people disembarking and, even though "information" had been given ahead of time on board the train, there was nobody around at the station to tell them where to go (although more than a few passengers probably felt the grumbling desire to tell SNCF "where it could go").

Bus terminus in Agen

Granted, there was an almost inaudible message over the loudspeaker telling the 400 + to make their way from the railway station to the neighbouring bus terminus.

But apart from that nothing; and just a single member of staff looking on in bemused fashion as everyone shuffled their way past, hoping it wouldn't be long before they reached the promised land of buses.

Some stood in bays looking as they knew what they were doing and where the buses would arrive. But how could they? Nobody had been provided with information because there didn't appear to be any information to provide.

A bus arrived and a section of the crowd surged forwards, only to discover this was a local service and not one of those "specials".

It was far from being an isolated incident as the minutes ticked away and local buses came and went.

"There taking the mickey out of us," one French woman said to me as we watched yet another bus arrive and make its way to a bay followed by a quarter of the train's passengers only to accelerate and leave empty.

"They're taking a lot more than that," I replied.

Finally the first of those special buses arrived and with it, as if from nowhere, a bevy of SNCF heavies...or security guards.

You could tell they would be needed as there was once again a crush to board the bus.

400 into one simply wouldn't go.

"Stand back please and allow those travelling with small children to board first," yelled one of the guards. "There will be several more buses arriving shortly. Stand back."

He was right. A few minutes later a couple more arrived: one bound for Toulouse the other for Montauban. Only nobody seemed to be certain which was which.

Both filled up quickly and left.

A quarter of an hour later along came another three and after yet more confusion over their destinations, departed.

That just left 30 or so souls remaining (including yours truly of course) and as happens on such occasions when waiting for a bus, four came along at the same time.

"Bon voyage" chirruped an SNCF guard as he waved off the last of us off into the night. A job done to the best of his ability probably given the tools with which he had to work.

Since then my trips have been relatively uneventful - well apart from the train I was informed three weeks ahead of time would be leaving five minutes before scheduled but when I turned up early at the station I discovered it was 30 minutes late.

Still I shouldn't complain.

Until today that is.

Because with a train booked to Marseille and a long-awaited trip to visit the European Capital of Culture 2013 before it's too late,

I've just discovered that my train is one of those cancelled by strike action beginning on Wednesday evening.

SNCF even sent a very helpful email telling me what to do (in the nicest possible way). I may still use the ticket on any train from Toulouse to Marseille but won't be guaranteed a seat.

SNCF email

Marvellous. I can take a trip down memory lane to my student InterRailing days complete with rucksack and squat in the corridor for four hours.

Don't think so.

Or I can try to exchange my ticket for one aboard another train that (fingers crossed) will be running. For that of course, I'll have to pay a supplement as the ticket I have is one of those cheapo deals.

Or I can cancel my trip entirely and be reimbursed.

Or I can get the sodding car out of the garage and drive.

Bon voyage.

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