Bonjour tout le monde! I’m back on the road, well, rails and this morning’s trip started on the 1015 Avanti train (from Manchester Piccadilly) to London Euston. Once again, the company has been covering themselves with glory…
For non-Mancunian readers, Avanti run the West Coast Franchise to London and in the last few months have scaled back the service from four direct trains an hour to the capital to one. And those that remain are frequently subject to cancellations at short notice.
I was booked on the 1035 but received an email the other day letting me know my booking had changed. That’s the Avanti euphemism for cancelled. As ever I was given the option to “abandon” my journey or get the train before or after the original slot.
Faced with arriving significantly later on the after option, I naturally took the earlier journey, dashing out of the hairdressers the second the scissors took their final snip to catch the 1015.
From the second I boarded, I got the distinct impression that the train crew were not having a good day. The passengers were given a THOROUGH summary of ALL the reasons why we shouldn’t be travelling on this train – which ticketing breaches would result in an increased price and which ones would see us chucked off at the next station. I was half expecting the conductor to arrive in the carriage with an entourage of bouncers at any point.
And woe betide the traveller who placed their luggage in any doorways. Why WOULD you? If you did today it was going to be moved, “preferably onto the platform,” said the conductor. Fair enough, but for anyone who happened to be departing later from Piccadilly… should there have been a bomb scare on Platform 6… it would be because the train crew had lobbed all the cases off the train.
It was Friday. They’d probably had a really shit week and were sick of fronting and therefore bearing the brunt of Avanti’s crap service.
The battle for doublebooked reservations started. We hadn’t got to Stockport yet. (Ten minutes journey time, non-Mancunians).
We left Stoke-on-Trent. So far, in just over and hour… I’d heard “See It, Say It, Sorted” seven times. Yes, it is “See It, Say It, Sort It” but it just doesn’t sound like that. I’d also listened to the announcement for the onboard shop by two different people (delivered immediately after each other as if they were in competition and were awaiting points from the passengers) nine times. Oh, and if you don’t want to leave your seat there was an app for ordering. Coaches U and D still had plenty of seats and the conductor with the bouncers hasn’t yet arrived. Something could be kicking off in First Class for all I knew. The chocolate muffins could have been stale and the passengers could have started a riot.
Meanwhile somebody on board had lost a pair of specs and a book. It took me a couple of repeat announcements (which was fine because the shop crew really liked using the tannoy system) to catch the title. The book had an orange cover and at first I thought it was called: “Uh-toh Pia” or “Otto Pier”. On the third listen (I told you they liked making announcements). I discovered the book is actually called “Utopia for Realists”. I reckoned the owner was pleased that “Uh-toh Pia” has been handed in and was now hoping the same would happen to their book.
The train arrived in London and I wandered around to the Brasserie at St Pancras for lunch. Yes, that is champagne and that is also a plate of fish and chips. You can take the girl out of the Northeast…
You will note that it’s also posh fish and chips. How can you tell? Multiple plates. One plate for the fish and the minted, crushed peas. (We’re not doing anything quite so ‘crass’ as mushy peas). And the lemon is wrapped in muslin… which almost defeats the squeezing of juice. A heated cylinder to serve the chips in seperately and THEN, because I asked for ketchup… a seperate miniature pan.
It’s posh fish and chips because of the ridiculous amount of dishes used to serve one meal. Whoever came up with this idea doesn’t do the washing up.
Having discussed dessert options with the waitress and discovered that the deceptively light option of chocolate mousse would be quite the mistake if I was even slightly full… I headed off to catch the Eurostar to Paris.
The company have announced that they’ve had to reduce capacity as a result of increased passport checks. (Thanks very much Brexit). Departures was busy but moved quickly and I leisurely boarded the 1631.
The journey to Paris was smooth with stunning sunset views as the train travelled across Northern France.
On arrival into Gare du Nord, I caught a Metro two stops to Gare de Lyon where I walked across a bridge over the Seine to Austerlitz. Here, the station was swathed in scaffolding and construction hoardings for some serious refurbishment and construction. However, this is being used as an opportunity for an exhibition with a series of comicbook style illustrations telling the story of a heroine of the Resistance during World War Two.
My train was soon ready for boarding and I trekked along the platform to find my carriage. I had been surprised by the sheer number of calling points listed on the departures board as, according to Trainline, there were supposed to be only two stops before mine.
The reason for the multiple stops became clear. The 22 carriage train splits into three at different stages along the route. Riding at the front of the train, the other two would peel off behind us.
I made my way to my sleeper cabin.
Yes, it was proper backpacking stuff again. However, it was also much more compact than any other rail carriage I slept in when I buggered off travelling in 2019.
There were six bunks. SIX. That’s right: six bunks in this cabin and four of us arrived at the same time WITH our luggage to take up occupancy. A game of human Tetris ensued.
It was compact to say the least. 48 hours on the Trans Siberian Railway would not have been fun doing it like this! Fortunately, I was only going to be here for the next nine hours and I’ll be remaining horizontal.
One of my fellow travellers asked me if I wanted to store my luggage above the door. I’d be getting up at 6.15am. I’d be the first one to leave the train from this cabin. Let’s minimise how disruptive I could be, I thought.
And the travelling goodie box? Tissues, earplugs, a mask, wetwipes and SNCF toothpaste. What more could I want?
The journey was incredibly comfortable: a nice firm bunk, a cosy sleeping bag (which did beat the sheets and blankets of other sleeper journeys I’ve made, especially in confined spaces – apple pie corners were unlikely as six people tried to make up to towers of triple-deck bunks) and the wifi was excellent.
The train itself – at least once the earplugs were in – seemed to move virtually silently, and halts, of which there were several, were smooth and gentle: no shuddering, shrieking stops that hurled you either into the wall of the cabin or, worse, onto the floor.
I was awake (actual ready to go awake not just randomly waking through the night) just after 6am where I found us to be at Castelnaudary, the last stop before my destination. After ten minutes, I decided to get up.
Although it was still dark outside, there was enough light to see by – lights around sockets in the cabin.
Because I had slept fully dressed, this wasn’t going to take long. My bunk was the middle tier and, with everyone else in theirs, I had the floor space (all 1m of it) to myself for standing FULLY UPRIGHT to put my jacket on and lean against the ladder to pull my shoes on. I’d kept my rucksack on my bunk so nobody was overly disturbed by my grabbing my belongings and stepping onto the corridor.
The conductors calling a loud and cheery “bonjour” as I opened the door may have woken my five cabin mates, however.
At the end of the carriage was a woman who had obviously had the same idea as me. She smiled at me as she brushed her hair using the dark window as a mirror.
The train pulled into Carcassonne at 6.30am and we climbed off the train.
In other cities and countries when I’ve arrived in the dark, I’ve loitered in the station until daylight but the sun wasn’t going to rise until well after 7am here. However, according to Google, there was a cafe on the main square already open. So I headed across the canal to La Rotonde for breakfast where I watched the world wake up over a croissant.