The marvels of French rail travel are a myth, says Ross Clark. Travelling by TGV is a rip-off — and the customer service is appalling
Which Ryanair passenger, left fuming by lousy service and lashed by Michael O’Leary’s tongue, hasn’t opined that, if only they had more money and a bit of extra time, they could glide to their holiday destination on a French TGV? Why do we insist on subjecting ourselves to the torture of budget airlines when down there, at ground level, we could be travelling on the fastest and most envied railway system in the world and one that is, according to the marketing bumf, ‘high-speed and hassle-free’?
I’ll give you a good reason: because the customer service on French Railways (SNCF) is no better than on Ryanair. The only difference is that SNCF is several times the price. If you are tempted by the TGV, my advice is to go and admire it from one of the many autoroute service stations which it passes. Try to travel on it, however, and you will appreciate the French railway system for what it is: a wonderful vanity project for the French government which doesn’t give a damn for the passengers.
I very nearly did drive to the Alps, having been quoted a price of £600 for a return train ticket for me and my 15-year-old son — via Rail Europe, the UK marketing arm of SNCF. But by juggling the days and taking the risk of inflexible tickets (which become invalid if you miss the train named on the ticket), I managed to get the cost down to £376 — not cheap, but a luxury we could just about afford.
The one thing I wasn’t going to do, however, was risk missing our connections in Paris. Having booked a couple of berths on the 23.02 overnight train from Austerlitz station to Bourg St Maurice, we arrived in Paris at half past five, enough time for a leisurely stroll along the Seine and a good dinner before catching the train. Because I am a slightly nervous user of trains, aware that things can and often do go wrong, we walked over to the Austerlitz station a full hour before the train was due to leave — enough time to pick up the tickets I had already paid for even allowing for a long queue and a surly and unhelpful booking clerk.
But even I could not have predicted the next bit. The Bourg St Maurice train was listed as departing not at 23.02 but at 22.07. Though I have never run quite so fast with baggage, we managed to catch it — but of course without the tickets.
Most airlines have long since abolished tickets, realising that they are a waste of time and money: you just bring your booking reference and the airline staff can check it on computer. But not French railways: they cling to the ticket as a symbol of French bureaucratic pride. You can’t even print them out at home, using technology embraced by theatres and what have you. Either you are in possession of a physical ticket or you are in contravention of some law dating back to 1845.
The next thing was that a jobsworth of a conducteur ejected us from the couchettes we had booked and marched us to the back of the train. Never mind the clear evidence I showed him that we had paid, and had been given the incorrect departure time, he insisted not only on charging us again, but charging us twice the fare we had paid — a whopping €147 — this not for a TGV but for a rattling old train which was taking the old line on a tedious circumnavigation of eastern France. ‘Pour votre sécurité,’ explained le jobsworth. No, not for our security, I tried to reply in admittedly substandard French: for your bloody own satisfaction.
Le jobsworth did then slightly change his tune and say that if we went to the booking office in Bourg St Maurice and presented our penalty ticket, we would be able to claim a refund (in which case why issue it in the first place?). But it turned out to be a fib: the woman behind the ticket counter wasn’t the slightest bit interested, merely poking the address of SNCF’s ‘service relations’ department through the window.
I did eventually get my money back after complaining rather loudly in the booking hall at the Gare de Lyon on the way home. I could only pity the growing queue behind me. I had been queueing myself for half an hour while several of the booking staff were snogging each other. What is the point of having 200mph trains if the passengers have to wait half an hour to buy or collect a ticket?
What was so revealing about SNCF was that when the booking clerk did eventually agree to refund the ticket he apologised on behalf of himself ‘for giving you the wrong information’ — i.e. for first telling me that under no circumstances could he give me a refund. But at no point during the fiasco did anyone apologise on behalf of SNCF for giving me the wrong departure time for the train on which I had booked tickets. Not even Ryanair would give you the wrong departure time for one of its flights and then make you pay again. Yet no one at SNCF could bring themselves to admit that this is an unreasonable thing to do, or offer any explanation at all. When I challenged Rail Europe, which is wholly owned by SNCF, I was told that they sold their tickets on the basis of the Thomas Cook rail timetable, rather than SNCF’s own timetable: ‘Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing in advance if a departure time has been changed from the one that is advertised on the booking system, unless we are informed by SNCF in advance,’ I was told.
But that is the way with nationalised monopolies: they know they don’t need to worry about offending passengers because they know they are going to get some money off you anyhow — through your taxes — and there is no competition. The fact that SNCF runs some very fast and impressive trains does not, I am afraid, endear me to the principle of nationalised rail travel. Our trains may be slow by comparison and customer service on some of the franchised operations is little better. But in the few places there is competition the result is miraculous. What was the first innovation by Hull Trains when it won the right to challenge the now-defunct GNER up the East Coast mainline? Allowing hurried passengers to buy their tickets on the train.
Neither are French railways the picture of economic efficiency which they claim to be. OK, they manage to build new lines at a fraction of the cost we waste on them, but the €1.1 billion profit recently reported by SNCF is an illusion created by the division of the railways, as in Britain, into two parts. Réseau Ferré de France, the equivalent of Network Rail, was paid a €2.3 billion subsidy last year. As in Britain, an absurd proportion of transport spending goes towards running trains for the wealthy: of the €170 billion the French government plans to invest in transport over the next 20 years, 51.9 per cent will go on TGV projects — compared with only 4.5 per cent on the roads.
The TGV is wonderful to watch, but the autoroute is not only better value for money — it is less hassle to use, too.