Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Thello goodbye

I was always in two minds about it.
Going to Venice on the train. The overnight sleeper.
For all sorts of unimportant reasons, it was pretty late in the day that we decided to spend a week or so in Venice at the beginning of August.
A place we know well.
A place that can’t be spoiled even by the billions of tourists shambling around San Marco and the Rialto in the impossible heat.
We were going to be in France in July. And it seemed nuts to fly. And I didn't fancy the day-time train.
So, the Thello night sleeper from Paris it was. Encouraged by The Man in Seat Sixty-One.
A thirteen hour rumble through the night. Via Dijon, the Simplon tunnel, Milan, Verona, Padua. A whiff of romance. Bed down in Paris. Wake up in Venice.
Such a bad idea.
Pluses and minuses
On the plus side, three-berth cabins were easy to book straight from the Thello website.
And not too expensive … though at £100 per berth each way, it wasn’t that much cheaper than the most conveniently timed Paris/Venice flights. And more expensive than the red-eyes.
And that’s about it. For the plus side.
Place des Vosges
That and the afternoon we got to spend in Paris (most of it acting the bourgeois in the gloriously splendid Place des Vosges) before setting off at eight o’clock.
Well, that was the time we were supposed to set off.
We got to the Gare Lyon at six. Time for a drink, Something to eat etc.
Didn’t quite trust Thello’s boasts of “a menu card to suit every budget”.
Late and later
Bad news.
Up there on the departure board, the Venice train was showing a delay of one hour.
An hour later, another hour’s delay clicked up. Two hours.
An hour later, a third. Then a fourth. Then ‘indeterminate delay’.
No one knew why. The staff in the Thello shop had all gone home. And the SNCF information desk denied all knowledge, responsibility or interest.
There’d been intemperies on the Riviera, apparently. And that was causing delays. We weren’t going anywhere near the Riviera.
And a train was stuck at Avignon. Not going that way either.
The best anyone in a uniform could do was shrug about “the late arrival of equipment”. But our train had arrived at Gare Lyon at nine-thirty that morning and had been sitting in a siding outside the station since. It seemed hard to see how those misfortunes were anything to do with it.
Grim gare
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to spend four and a half hours at the Gare Lyon as it closes down for the night. It’s not a very nice place.
Not at all.
Apart from anything else, it’s in the middle of a major re-build right now. So things that should be there aren’t. And things that should work don’t.
Like seats. And lavatories.
Some things are unaffected, though. Like the slamming shutters on Relay and anywhere else selling food or drink on the dot of eight-thirty.
I’ll never criticise an airport again.
Midnight comes and goes 
Thello runs two night trains. One to Rome, one to Venice.
Both were delayed.
Both, in the end, by over four hours.
Both victims of something we underestimate at our peril. The stubborn inflexibility of the French public servant.
A man or woman who, with a following wind, can make the most cussed jobsworths of any other nation seem like Good Deed Daily.
Thello, you see, is a new(ish) venture. A private venture. The first to exploit ‘open access’ on the French railway system.
Hence SNCF’s general lack of interest in it or us.
Sure, it leases its engines in a complex arrangement involving SNCF. But otherwise it’s a thorn in the sprawling side of the state behemoth.
And you can imagine what that means for the place it has in the heart of every SNCF fonctionnaire.
Think Robert Maxwell running a couple of trains on pre-Beeching British Rail.
Shrugs all round
So when things go wrong for SNCF – as they clearly had that day – SNCF is the priority. And if that means keeping platforms free for delayed SNCF trains and not finding one for those pesky private Thello trains for over four hours … **shrugs and makes that ‘muh’ sound**.
But at least it can't get worse, can it? We think. As round about a quarter past midnight we drag ourselves on board.
Obviously, our carriage is at the very far end of the platform.
And it’s clear that it’s very, very old. Between forty and fifty years old, it turns out.
Thello – which, for the time being, is a consortium of Veolia (the people who take your rubbish away and run the bus and tram systems in many European cities) and Trenitalia – uses carriages originally built for the Wagon Lits company when Charles de Gaulle was President of France and England was yet to win the World Cup.
They look like it.
They might even be the very couchette carriages I traveled on back in 1969 on a school trip to Switzerland.
I wouldn't be surprised to learn they hadn’t been cleaned since about then.
Shabbiness, you can just about forgive. Decades of congealed cack in every corner is a tad harder to ‘understand’.
Of course, there’s no room in the cabins. Not for you and your luggage. You expect that.
And you expect the bunks to be four inches shorter than you are.
What you don’t expect is that the top bunk’s headroom – mine – is mere inches. A single digit’s worth of inches.
Nor that, by some evil trick of circulation, all the hot air from the rest of the train ends up there. Driven by the train’s ancient emphysemic ventilation system.
Never mind. “We’ll have the morning to watch the Italian countryside drift by.”
Not really. After Milan – we arrived there about the time we were supposed to be in Venice – we trundled along, stopping at every signal, deep in an embankment, hidden by trees or plastic wind shields or weaving through the industrial zones of Lombardy and Veneto.
Breakfast was marred by an electrical failure in the buffet car. So they, apologetically, made the instant coffee with lukewarm water pumped from a flask.
Oh. And the plumbing is … romantic. Best leave that there.
Way to go?
Would I do it again?
No. Obviously, no.
As it turned out, the return journey left Venice and arrived in Paris on time.
But the temperature on board was over 38 degrees. And up there on the torture bunk, sleeping wasn’t much of an option. Though the dehydration induced hallucinations were entertaining.
Bluntly, this is not a way to go to and from Venice. At best, it's an adventure in masochism.
If you're thinking about it, don't. Stop. Now.

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