Off-track trains

This morning I was reading a blog post about a traveller who through a series of mishaps ended up having one of those train journeys usually confined to frustrating dreams, when nothing is where it should be and time is against you, and the harder you try to escape the deeper you plunge.

It reminded me of an occasion several years ago. I absolutely love railway stations and train journeys, even more so when they don’t go according to plan and turn into an adventure, which this one did, although sadly it was caused by somebody else’s misfortune.

Travelling to England for work, whenever possible I went by train as a person, rather than as a parcel by short haul flight.

The journey started with a 40-minute drive to Poitiers railway station. Two and a half hours by train to Paris Montparnasse. A taxi across Paris to St Lazare. A train to Rouen. A train from Rouen to Dieppe, a walk or taxi from Dieppe station to the port, and the ferry to Newhaven. It took the best part of a day, and felt like a short holiday.

The return journey obviously worked in reverse. On this occasion I was due to arrive in Poitiers in the early evening, where my husband would collect me. The ferry crossing was on time. The chuggy little train from Dieppe to Rouen was on time. There was a comfortable change over time at Rouen, and the train to Paris left on time. So far everything was on schedule and going according to plan.

Fifteen minutes out of Rouen, the train squealed and halted just outside a station.  None of the passengers reacted at first, but sat reading or chatting quietly. But as the minutes ticked away people became restless and began murmuring and peering out of the windows. After ten minutes I started feeling anxious, because I didn’t have a great deal of time to get across Paris to catch my next train. Another ten minutes passed, and by then I knew my connection was (1).jpg

A voice came over the speaker announcing that somebody had jumped onto the line in front of the train and been killed. The judicial police had arrived on the scene (ugh, how awful for them), and we wouldn’t be moving again until they had completed their examination of the scene. In England, there would have been ‘an incident on the line.’ Of course everybody would understand the innuendo, but the graphic words wouldn’t be spoken. The French are less coquettish, more down to earth.

The announcement continued to say that anybody making a connection in Paris should speak to the official who would be coming into the carriage. He would make arrangements for those whose journey would be disrupted.

A friendly French couple sitting opposite me said  how lucky I was – as I’d miss the last train home, the SNCF would put me in a hotel in Paris for the night. Woo hoo, (I know, it was wrong, somebody had just died, but still….) The ticket man gave me a voucher to present at St Lazare, and I was already anticipating a nice cosy hotel room and dinner, hopefully breakfast too, all at the expense of the efficient and thoughtful SNCF.The-Peninsula-Spa-Gift-Cards-2.jpg

It was a long time before we began rolling again, and when we arrived at St Lazare it was pandemonium as several hundred people with vouchers stormed the Accueil. When I reached the counter and claimed my hotel room, I was disappointed to learn that the SNCF had made arrangements for the Paris to Biarritz overnight train to make a stop at Poitiers, and I was to take the Metro to the Gare d’Austerlitz to catch a train from there. I explained that I don’t use underground trains, nor lifts. I am claustrophobic. The official shrugged and suggested I took a taxi.

There seemed to be no end to the queue for taxis, but fortunately there were almost three hours before the train left, so I tacked myself to the end and shuffled along as the queue diminished. It was snowing gently. Despite the cold, and the long wait, everybody was good-humoured and patient, as I generally find the French are in these situations. I wimages.jpgas quite enjoying listening to their banter, until I remembered I only had 7 euros in cash with me. How would I pay the taxi driver? Twinge of panic.

When I finally reached the head of the queue I had an inspiration, and I turned round and called out in French to the hordes behind me: “Does anybody want to share a taxi to Gare d’Austerlitz?” People stared in astonishment, as if I’d taken off all my clothes and rolled naked in the snow, and for a few seconds there was silence. Then from way back a man held up his arm and yelled “Yes!” He galloped up and we climbed into the taxi together. taxi-paris_2694943b.jpgHe too had been diverted and had very little time to make his connection to somewhere far away in Eastern France; as it was, he didn’t think he’d make it, but at least now he had a chance. He asked the taxi driver to put his foot down, which led to an enjoyably high speed ride through Paris, like something out of a film, with the driver pointing out landmarks that passed in a blur. As we reached Austerlitz my fellow passenger leapt out, thrust a bundle of notes at the driver and vanished.

“Ooof, he’s overpaid me,” said the driver. Yay! Result. 🙂

The train didn’t leave until midnight. It was now after 10.00 pm, and I should have arrived at Poitiers just after 7.00 pm. Neither my husband nor I had mobile phones at the time, so I phoned home, but there was no answer. I left a message to say I was OK and didn’t know what time I’d get to Poitiers, then roamed around the station, freshened up in their immaculate washroom, and blew the 7 euros on a hot chocolate and croissant.


Gare de Paris-Austerlitz en chantier, la facade principale (Janv. 2015)

Finally the Biarritz train moved out of the station. The passenger in front of me immediately reclined his seat into my lap, playing a Walkman, and through the earphones the tchk tchk tchk noise went round and round. His hair needed washing. I jerked my knees into the back of his seat a few times to try and disturb him, to no avail. I didn’t want to share his noise and odour, so went and stood in the area between the carriages and watched the night going by.

There was nothing out there. Not a light anywhere. No signs of road traffic. Just empty blackness. After two hours a small alarm bell went off in my head. Surely by now there should be some signs of habitation; surely we should have passed through at least a couple of stations. Either I was on the wrong train, or they had forgotten to stop. We should have reached Tours by now, but we hadn’t, so we must have been heading straight for Biarritz, and how would I get back home, and when?

There was nobody to ask what was happening; the carriages were dark, everybody was asleep, I couldn’t find anything to pull or push, so I stood there swaying and wondering if the person who had jumped in front of the train near Rouen had given a thought to how many people would find their day disrupted, let alone the distress of all those who had to deal with the aftermath of their actions. There was nothing I could do, except wait, and deal with whatever happened next. Beneath tiredness and anxiety there was, I admit, just a tiny worm of excitement wondering how this was going to end. And bizarrely, the words of one of Chris de Burgh’s songs kept running through my head:

“There’s a man on the line, and he is wasting my time …………...”

On and on went the train, through the dark and empty night. When I had resigned myself to ending up nearly 300 miles from home, with no money, the train began to slow, and there was the space age landscape of Futuroscope, and the lights of the city. The train pulled into the darkened station and tiptoed to a halt. download.jpg

It was like a scene from a wartime spy film: the deserted station, the silent train, the single passenger alighting and the solitary figure standing on the platform beneath a single faint overhead light.  It was 3.40 am, and my husband has been waiting here since 7.00 pm.

As he took my backpack a carriage door slammed, and another figure descended and followed us out of the station.

“Excuse me,” he said in French, “I am sorry to ask, but do you go anywhere near Roches Prémarie?” He explained that he lived alone, there was nobody he could call for a lift, no taxis and no hotels accepting guests at that hour of the night.

The man who had shared the taxi in Paris had done me a favour, and we could pass it on as we were able to deliver this gentleman to his front door, which made for a very satisfactory ending to the saga.

You wouldn’t have that kind of adventure on the short haul flight. On the other hand, who wants an adventure in mid-air?

This post linked to:

Lou Messugo







22 thoughts on “Off-track trains

    • Thanks for commenting. I think your experience must have been far worse. Being on a train going in the wrong direction ………… And then in a station in the early hours of the morning, very scary stuff. Enjoy your travels. 🙂

  1. What a brilliant story … I’m a fellow train lover though I did get mighty tired of them when I commuted back and forth to Paddington from Oxford. Many ‘incidents on the line’ and once one at my own station in front of us all. Very very sad and very very disruptive. I read that most train suicides are men – they want a violent end whereas women are more likely to reach for the tramadol. So they say. I had the most extraordinary conversation with two extraordinarily clever PhD students of my husband’s recently. There had been two deaths on the Boston T in the previous 24 hours and then a driverless train had taken off on it’s own. All very good fodder for a lunch conversation. What was amazing was the fact that one of the young men refused to understand how someone could fall in front of a train. I said it was clearly surprisingly easy and a fact of life in England. He was entirely bewildered and appalled and couldn’t grasp the mechanics at all. I gave up in the end and concentrated on my vegetable soup – mercifully not tomato.

    • We used to hire people with excellent degrees from top universities, and besides their extraordinary cleverness they all shared an extraordinary inability to be in touch with reality. They were also extraordinarily impractical – we watched one of them struggling with a parking meter. He couldn’t understand why it kept showing the red flag, because he didn’t realise that you had to twist a knob once you’d fed the coins in. So I don’t always rate extraordinarily clever people very highly. 🙂 In fact, some of them seemed extraordinarily stupid when faced with the ‘normal’ tasks that mere mortals perform without difficulty.

      Anybody who jumps or ‘falls’ under a train really is looking for a final solution. No doubt about that. With an overdose, there’s always a chance of being ‘saved’. A few years ago a young woman stepped onto the tracks not far from here, as the TGV was going by. Tomato soup.

  2. Gosh, I don’t know how you managed all those connections when they went according to plan, let alone when they didn’t! A great piece of writing, as always.

    • Generally it went very smoothly, Alison. Just a question of being well organised and leaving plenty of time between connections. But the best laid plans gang aft agley when a jumper interrupts your day. 🙂

  3. What an adventure! Unlike you, I am not keen on trains though I did have a slightly similar story with a better ending. Back in the 70s, there was a system called the Silver Arrow that took passengers by train from Paris to Le Touquet on the Norman coast then across to Gatwick by plane. It was just before Christmas and when we got to Le Touquet, the weather was too rough for the plane to cross the channel.
    We were given three choices: 1) return by train to Paris 2) take a taxi to the nearest ferry across the channel 3) stay overnight at Le Touquet and take the plane next day.
    The French were up in arms (unlike your experience) and all scrambled for taxis. I and two English girls elected to stay in private rooms at a very nice hotel. Next morning after breakfast, our pilot arrived and took the three of us across the channel in a four-seater. It was a lovely and an unforgettable ride!
    I did have a problem when I arrived at my friend’s house in a village near Brighton though. No one was home and I remember sitting very coldly in the dark garden waiting for them to arrive. The next-door neighbour took pity on me and asked me in so I was fine in the end.

    • Don’t you find that it’s when things go wrong that they become the most interesting and you remember them best? I think you and your friends definitely made the wisest choice. Ooh ahh, Brighton in mid-winter, locked out, but those kind neighbours helping you. Makes a nice story. 🙂

  4. What a brilliant story Susie. I think I would have been having kittens! My husband is on his own mini adventure today as his short haul flight to UK for work was cancelled yesterday evening, merci M le Greve. He is now in the car driving to La Harve to catch a ferry to Portsmouth, followed by more driving to get him to Bristol for work tomorrow.

    • I hope he’s enjoying the adventure, Jacqui. As long as it doesn’t cause too much inconvenience or too many problems, maybe he’ll enjoy the change in routine. But has he left you a car, or will you be doomed to the bike?

  5. In today’s Britain with it’s dire train services I can imagine the only similarity to your saga would be a great deal of the famous French shoulder shrugging from anyone concerned with sorting out the passenger’s problems.
    Apart from old carriages, bad timekeeping and dreadful services on board, you need to take out a mortgage to buy a ticket for a trip of any distance.
    Loved the story – thanks.

    • I’ve had a few minor adventures in Britain, Pip, with services not running, but in fairness we were loaded onto coaches and taken to another station for our onward journeys. And an embarrassing time when I had booked a journey and missed my train, so jumped on the next one. When the ticket collector arrived and I handed him my ticket, he told me I was on the wrong operator. I didn’t know what he was talking about. It was the same departure, the same route and the same destination, but apparently operated by two different companies. I had no idea, I thought it was all British Rail. Anyway, he wanted me to buy another ticket, but I only had a French cheque book or bank card with me and a handful of euros, so he let me off.

      Of course, my use of the train in Britain has been very limited, and I wouldn’t like it if I had to commute. Also I was stunned by the cost, and also quite angry that it can vary so much depending on what you know. For one journey up to Lincolnshire I think booking on-line through the Rail Network, or whatever they are called, it was going to be something like £96, but by Red Spotted Hanky, same trains, same times, same routes, less than £30; Such a con.

  6. I remember the late, late darkened train slipping almost furtively into the darkened Poitiers station and the relief of finally seeing you climb down from a coach, although not immediately just a little delay but long enough to further heighten my already high anxiety.

  7. WP is so annoying. Why did it not notify me of your post? It hasn’t unfolowed me just not told me. Oh well. C’est la vie.
    Austerlitz was when I finally fell out of my French love affair. Shit food esp for vegetarians. Stuff all of interest there. Miserable gloomy place while waiting for the sleeper to Madrid.
    I do the whole claustrophobic thing too. And I did the Málaga to Yorkshire thing by train and ship not plane. Great stories and a holiday in itself every time.
    Met nice people, shared taxis and was offered to share a bed. Um, maybe not.

  8. I’ve had similar issues with WP recently, not notifying me of new blog posts, and I’ve only found them via the Reader. Also had a ding-dong battle with WP today insert a clickable image in the sidebar.

    Maybe it was relief, tiredness, continuing excitement, but I quite liked Austerlitz. It was good to sit down for a couple of hours. The washroom facilities were fantastic – you could have a steaming hot shower. And with only 7 euros to spend I wasn’t expecting much of a meal. 🙂

    I’d love to do some really long distance train journeys, because even at their worst they are not as bad as being cramped in a tiny seat in an airborne tin can, next to somebody with halitosis and very fat arms occupying the armrest.

    Food sharing OK, bed sharing a definite no-no, unless it’s George Clooney or similar.

  9. I simply cannot find the words to express how much I enjoyed this chronicle. Most of us have had similar adventures during travel. But none of us can write such a brilliant account of the adventure. You wrote for us. Thank you so much!

  10. Bob Rosenzweig says it perfectly; “you wrote for us”. This story is so beautifully told. I love trains and have taken plenty of just about the longest distance possible journeys including an epic Hanoi to Helsinki trip. Amazingly I don’t think anything went wrong at all on that trip. I’ve also taken the Trans-Siberian over Christmas i.e through Siberia in the dead of winter, and once again, nothing went wrong. Thanks for linking this up to #AllAboutFrance, I hope you join in again tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s