It could be that I watch too many films and read too many books, but when I think of European rail travel I have a tendency towards fantasy. I dream of sitting in a formal dining room sipping burgundy as the countryside races past. Or of lying back in a couchette, reading Proust*, while secret agents run along the roof fighting and narrowly avoiding decapitation in the mouths of tunnels.
So when I realized late last month that I would need to travel from Bergerac in south-west France back to home here in Madrid, I immediately thought: “Train.”
It’s less than 800km between the two cities and the route runs through Bordeaux, one of France’s largest cities, so I was fairly confident that two countries with such excellent high speed rail systems would likely be able to provide a fast, efficient and affordable route, even if nobody could guarantee spies scrapping in the buffet car.
Sadly, the fantasy died a quick death at the hands of Google. There are a number of great websites offering advice on the route, including Rome2Rio.com and Route Rank, but what they all seemed to agree on was that this was not an easy journey. The quickest one offered seemed to be 11 and a half hours (it took less than 8 to drive the outbound leg) involving three stops, although no detailed timetable was offered for this route, leaving me skeptical that it was possible.
After a good tip on Trip Advisor to check out the ”all knowing” Deutsche Bahn website, I eventually found three itineraries of between 13 and 19 hours taking in a variety of routes covering both the Atlantic and Mediterranean borders between France and Spain – but given my time constraints – none of these options were feasible – including a “hotel train” that ran from Paris to Madrid that sounded fun, but required a three-hour, 250 km diversion north to Poitiers by car.
With a heavy heart, I clicked through to Iberia.com and booked a seat on the Air Nostrum regional service from Bordeaux to Madrid and parked the rail dream in the sidings for another time.
I learned a number of things during the search. First the fact that most Spanish railways run on different gauges from their standard-gauge French counterparts probably doomed the project from the start. The nearest and most convenient crossing – at Hendaye/Irun – required a change of train to cross the border. (Spanish high-speed routes have been built to standard gauge and the “hotel train” runs across the border on this). There is also no high speed train on the Spanish side of the border in that area, adding several hours to my hoped-for travelling time.
Second, there is, unsurprisingly, a huge wealth of information on the internet for the intrepid traveler, and even for me. Social network sites and comments on blogs and other sites are hugely helpful and fill gaps that the major ticketing sites have.
Despite this, however, one thing is clear: it’s not that easy to book and find your way around cross-border rail travel. I appreciate that this is a relatively small sample and one where the conditions are not ideal.
Amadeus is leading a European Union project that aims to address these issues and make cross-border travel easier. The All Ways Travelling consortium, launched in July – - will look “to develop a model for a European multimodal passenger information and booking system that could streamline the process of travelling across various modes of transport and make the whole experience easier for the traveler”.
As for my journey, in the end I managed to add one rail element, a train from Libourne to Bordeaux St. Jean from where I travelled to the airport. The All Ways Travelling project may make things easier for the traveler but the traveler also needs to play his part. I had built 90 minutes into my schedule to have a walk around Bordeaux before heading to the airport, but as I misread the (perfectly comprehensible) SNCF timetable I spent 75 of those minutes on the platform in Libourne awaiting my train. And not a single secret agent was in sight.
*I have never actually read Proust – I tend towards spies and cops.