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Un tour de France 1/2

by DoDo Thu Sep 6th, 2007 at 08:51:31 AM EST

As I first told in an Open Thread, I spent the first half of a rather exhausting summer vacation in France. I raced around to cheer on a participant of the Paris–Brest–Paris cycle race from the roadside.

My early morning arrival in La Hutte (north of Le Mans) with a diesel AGC train. The road is open again for the endless stream of cyclists enjoying a brief pause in the rain

Owing to the facts that

  • I spent most of my time riding trains;
  • when off trains, it rained most of the time or lights were bad;
  • most of the photos I risked anyway ended up crap;

...this'll be a de-facto train diary, interlaced with stories and observations.

Promoted by whataboutbob

I will post a second part of this, also a parallel diary inspired by BruceMcF collecting only light-rail observations, and then a non-rail-oriented diary on the second leg of my trip (Frankfurt).

I left Budapest with a regular EC for Vienna, where I had time for a late afternoon walk.

The Sun shines into the Stephansdom, Vienna's main church

The U2 subway emerges to cross Vienna's name-sake creek on a bridge under a walk-bridge

Some more Vienna transport in the light rail diary.

From Vienna to Strasbourg, I took a night train, the heir to the Orient Express, which was discontinued with the opening of the TGV Est. This was a first for me – and didn't work out: noise, jerks, too high room temperature, boarding passengers kept me awake. At least the service was good, probably even better once the dissident Hungarian stewardess saw my passport.

My ticket-included breakfast in the dawn somewhere in the Rhine Valley before Strasbourg

In Strasbourg, I had time for a short walk. Even if it was a Sunday morning in August, I never saw a city this size this deserted: I met only drunkards and travellers with wheeled suitcases like me. But it was a beautiful morning.

Morning sunshine breaks through at flowers above the Strasbourg sightseeing riverboat ship port, around 8h. I won't see much sunshine thereafter

More Strasbourg in the light rail diary.

Public works

Almost finished when I was there, Strasbourg's grand old railway station got a just as grandiose new front. Above-ground, it has an all-glass curved surface along its entire length that looks like a UFO. Below ground, the only few years old tunnel station of Strasbourg's tram got a more spacious opening, and there is a now compulsory shopping level.

Later that day, I saw how light rail construction is taken as occasion to overhaul complete streets in Le Mans (more in light rail diary), and they just began to rebuild the railway station, last modernised barely two decades ago for the TGV Atlantique opening. In Paris, I glimpsed new tram construction and was an unlucky victim of the RER C reconstruction, and there is of course the refurbished Gare l'Est and the new LGV Est high-speed line.

So even in the Chirac/Sarko era, the French state and municipalities spend visibly much on public infrastructure. As I expected, I saw much less of this in Germany, towards and in Frankfurt.

:: :: :: :: ::

I couldn't reserve from abroad for the Strasbourg–Le Mans TGV ride, but when I went to the counter in Strasbourg, there were still free places (more below on the purchase). My train wasn't of the newest 320 km/h TGV POS batch, 'only' a refurbished 300 km/h TGV Réseau set:

My TGV to Le Mans before departure in Strasbourg, under a sky turning grey

After the crossing of the beautiful Vosges mountains, we reached the LGV Est, and the long acceleration for 300 km/h began. My first high-speed travel on a TGV! I was impressed by the smooth ride vertically, both at full speed and earlier on the conventional line; though laterally, carbody yaw was sometimes strong.

Two successive shots looking out of the TGV window about halfway between Metz and Reims

After nearly 600 km in 4 hours, passing Paris to the east and south, the train arrived in Le Mans.

My TGV in light drizzle in Le Mans. The slightly rusting platform roof reflects the futurism of the eighties. I will learn the value of that glass around the banks: when the wind blows, roofs are no defence against rain...

Le Mans is a city of 140,000, but as I walked up the hill on the main road, towards my hotel near the main square, I saw a dead city. Even more empty than Strasbourg in the early morning.

Yet, it is a lovely city. It has a large middle-age walled old town (Cité Plantagenêt). I guess as Le Mans is encircled by more prestigious tourist destinations (Loire valley, Chartres, Mont St. Michel, Normandy), it fell out of focus, but just that all the middle-age buildings aren't in a polished-up gleaming state gives it a more authentic middle-age feel.

In the nave of Cathédrale St-Julien, a church whose conversion from Romanesque to Gothic was never finished. Most major gothic cathedrals weren't finished by the end of the Middle Age, so this adds to the feeling too

Speaking French

My first serious attempt at using French was a catastrophe.

I mean, apart from the purchase of my TGV ticket in Strasbourg, when I thought I said "fenêtre" (window), but found my place at the aisle, between two windows and opposite a suitcase holder...

So in the evening in Le Mans, I thought I can't go wrong with a Turkish kebab restaurant, it's simple and they're all the same everywhere...

Trouble started with the choice: instead of the simple pita-or-dish choice I expected, there were half a dozen! Then I figured assiette is some dish form, and uttered my first sentence.

I got a question in return I couldn't decipher, even after repeat. I resorted to English, but the accent was so thick I understood even less. Then he passed me off to a second guy who spoke English a bit better – the question was just: take-away or at a table?...

I sat down, later the waitress came, and asked me: "Pa.., monsieur?" She had to show me bread before I realised I know the word pain, but I was too used to also see it written while I hear it...

...and I was never offered bread in advance in a kebab restaurant before. Also, once my meal came, they brought no drink, nor was there a fridge behind (for the personnel to pick) or on the side of the counter (for me to pick when I order). So back to the counter, where they point me to a fridge behind my back (and out of their direct sight too!) where I shall pick what I want. Wow! That's trust in the customers.

But if I didn't feel like an idiot enough, came the moment I had to pay. The guy sez, I'm trying to transcribe it in French, "Huj Euros!" Huh!? After wondering for a while, I gave him a ten. From the change I figured that he must have said huit (eight) in some accent...

Though I have been taken for a stoopid visitor from across the Channel a few more times (for some reason, everyone assumed I'm a Briton even before muttering anything non-French), in the following days, my ears got more used to real-life spoken French. I could even master half-assed conversations while hitch-hiking. Already the very next day, I went to another kebab restaurant, and knew my way from table/take-away to finding the fridge with drinks :-)

:: :: :: :: ::

View from the Grand Rue into the Rue Dorée, the most polished part of the old town at its lower end, with a rare tourist group

The next day, I took a limited-stop TER train to Versailles, then a suburban to St.-Quentin-en-Yvelines.

Of races, immigrants and assimilation

France's ethnic mixing is definitely well-progressed.

The dissipation of the 'visibly' immigrant population goes well down into small towns (say, the stationmaster in one Breton village was of Arab descent). I didn't saw much of the banlieues, but where I was, cultural assimilation was stronger than in Germany (I mean the presence of visible stuff like head-scarves, use of Arabic/Chinese etc., clientèle of restaurants). I also saw noticeably more mixed couples than in Frankfurt, and people with non-obvious origins.

However, while on TGVs and regional fast trains, travellers seemed to show the statistical mix, in the off-peak-hour period Banlieue and RER trains, there were almost no 'whites'. I wondered if that was the symptom of some less obvious race-and/or-class issue.

:: :: :: :: ::

St. Quentin is near the starting point of the Paris–Brest–Paris race in Guyancourt, and I met the friend who participates there.

After a walk around a town filled chock-full with the 5,300 race participants and their just as many companions, among whom my friend managed to find someone he knew from Sydney, I walked back to the suburban railway station. While trying to figure out where all the trains with their various four-letter codes go, I managed to just miss my chosen connection to Le Mans. Panic!

But just five minutes later, another train for Le Mans rolled into Versailles-Chantiers. It turned out to be a zoned train (a few stops until Chartres, all-stopper from there). It was a TER2N double-deck electric multiple unit.

The emptied top floor minutes before arrival in Le Mans. Airline-style fold-able tables and drink holders on the backs of seats is now SNCF standard

Trains and schedules

The regional trains of French state railways SNCF west of Paris definitely win in the general level of style and comfort, against other railways I travelled on. Maintenance and cleanliness is also top. This is valid for the now widespread new stock, but also for the (refurbished) old stock. Ride quality is also high, higher than nineties German stock; though the now all-prevalent AGC family of articulated trains shows a rather strong and constant 'snaking' at high speed that should be damped. (This is a general 'disease' of new articulated trains, BTW.)

This is less true for older TGV sets (the interior of Atlantique sets is ripe for renovation) and older trains around Paris. I once debunked a Financial Times attack on Paris trains, but all is not well: there were rusty spots on many Z2N sets, and all the windows were attacked by the scratchers, though trains were generally clean (super-clean by Hungarian Railways standards, but even cleaner than some new S-Bahn trains in Frankfurt).

But the one thing that got me cursing was schedule. Not keeping schedule, as the only late train I was on was a 100% full TGV, delayed by boarding school classes on excursions, but the lack of a regular-interval schedule west of Paris. This I knew in advance, when I put together a personal timeplan, but to live it made it an annoyance even more glaring.

What the French state railways implemented there is the 'rationalised service' dream of all fucking managers imported from the private economy into railways elsewhere:

  • concentrate on longer distances and cut back stops in smaller villages (up to only one train stopping in the morning and one in the evening);
  • concentrate on commuters (trains in quick succession in peak hours, then maybe once in 3 hours) and advance bookers (zero flexibility if you don't know in advance when you'd want to leave);
  • spend on bright new trains, but rather switch branchlines to buses.

Even the express services between my major stops Versailles-Chantiers, Le Mans, Rennes and Brest were too thinned out around midday. All the places between Paris and Brest where I could meet on the cycle race were ones with 2–4 stops a day, even though three of them were on mainlines. So I already planned with walking/hitch-hiking to the next larger town at least one way. But even those towns didn't had that many trains stopping, so multiple times I had to leave for the last train before my friend arrived.

:: :: :: :: ::

Staying in Le Mans was a good idea for two reasons: one, the bikers already took most hotel rooms around Guyancourt; two, the race started in the late evening, and I could catch my friend in daylight with the first train from Le Mans to the small village of La Hutte-Coulombiers. (See photo on top and in my Open Thread comment).

After diverse troubles, I arrived back in Le Mans under-cooled, and rode on after a hot soup. In a town north of Rennes, it rained so much that even hitch-hiking was out of question, I had to call a taxi (driver: nice 50-year-old rural lady) to reach Dingé station. Where I froze for two hours in the rain, in totally inadequate clothing: I only brought a pullover (wet from rain & sweat) and an umbrella (useless against the wind-spray), no raincoat or cap (what I missed most; it was maybe 10°C).

No stop here: an electric AGC for Rennes raced through Dingé in a brief period without rain. Previously, I broke into the abandoned station building on the right

The bikers came in endless succession, and they had at least raincoats, and warmed themselves with motion. But, from this stop on, there were always abandons boarding the train with me...

That night in Rennes, in a hotel room with barely working heating, I reeeeeally enjoyed the hot shower, too...

To be continued

:: :: :: :: ::

Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.

Bonus: what my friend told in St. Quentin.

A survival trip

This guy travelled to Paris already by bike, sleeping under bridges along the way, and his trip was... eventful. It started with a border guard picking him for total search at the Slovakian border. No sleep in the first night in Slovakia, due to stray dogs eyeing his food. But he was welcomed by ethnic Hungarians there, and then a friendly Slovakian guy helped him in Bratislava.

But once in Germany, a real hell trip begun. Another night without sleep as village teenagers chose throwing stones at him from the bridge he slept under as fun occupation. Then he began to have a terrible diarrhea, something he never had even from bad food. Then on top of it, the rains came and he was shaking from the cold, and he was thrown out of a railway station he hoped to find night refuge in. Then on top of it, he had to begin the climb across the Black Forest.

It was on the fourth day of diarrhea that he read the wrapping of the bread he ate -- which turned out to be crude bread, to be baked at home...

After diverse other accidents, he was sitting freezing in a bus stop in a town a day's ride from Paris, when a hippie came by, and told him: "Why don't you come with me & stay at the farm of my uncle for the night? There is hot shower!" (My friend: "In those days, I didn't dream of girls or something, I dreamt of a hot shower!" -- Nomad's rule of Civilised Luxury No. 1 seems to hold.)

On the way there, a girl crossed their way, and had an excited discussion with the hippie. Afterwards, he said: "She is angry at me because I slept with her boyfriend." Ooops! But that hot shower still attracted my friend. But at the farm, the gay hippie did make advances, and upon meeting refusal came with threats of throwout.

But here came my friend's big luck: the uncle came by and said "no way, this is my house, and you can stay!" -- and the French farmer and his childless Dutch wife kept him there for days, then invited him for the wine harvest on his way back, for €1,000!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Sep 4th, 2007 at 04:59:02 PM EST
Bravo DoDo. Great diary.

Hey, Grandma Moses started late!
by LEP on Wed Sep 5th, 2007 at 02:38:54 AM EST

Now I know why everybody hates French.. their train system works... while in Czech and Austria it is a shame... and even Germany is below the french... not to mention the spanish  (except the AVE-TGV after it is built with ten years delay).

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Wed Sep 5th, 2007 at 08:02:00 AM EST
... of Ohio, I do not get the feeling that people care much about the French either way, except for liking their fries.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu Sep 6th, 2007 at 03:23:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]

Church, Trainstation, Church, Trainstation, Church, Trainstation...

What is the common theme?

They both provide shelter from the heavens?

by PeWi on Thu Sep 6th, 2007 at 09:06:07 AM EST
They're both on the way to heaven...:

This train is bound for glory, this train,
This train is bound for glory, this train,
This train is bound for glory,
Don't ride nothin' but the righteous an' the holy
This train is bound for glory, this train


by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Sep 6th, 2007 at 09:13:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
French regions have invested in new trains over the past years, that's why you got to see so much brand new trains.

The old trains seem to still be around.

SNCF train schedule are notorious for seeming to be drawn randomly instead of evenly spread are regular interval. May be there's some logic behind it though :).

by Laurent GUERBY on Thu Sep 6th, 2007 at 05:49:12 PM EST
Dodo, I think you should bump this up for weekend reading...its great! (If you don't, I will...)

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Fri Sep 7th, 2007 at 10:24:03 AM EST
What the French state railways implemented there is the 'rationalised service' dream of all fucking managers imported from the private economy into railways elsewhere:

spend on bright new trains, but rather switch branchlines to buses.

As I explained in "The Train now arriving is Late" the British tried moving branch lines onto buses and the policy was an absolute disaster. SNCF would be mad to go down this route.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Fri Sep 7th, 2007 at 03:05:54 PM EST
The trouble is, they have already done this foolishness a decade or two ago on those lines. This disease is not only British.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Sep 7th, 2007 at 03:13:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
about "a night train, the heir to the Orient Express, which was discontinued with the opening of the TGV Est."
and about your difficulties to get some french tickets outside of France.

When the TGV est opened, the propaganda machine was all about "an european train tadi, tada, Europe going forward, lalallaaa".
SNCF und Europe, my (insert any profanity of your choice). As one who could use, will use and was using a train over the French-German border, I just tell you: I need more time, money and connections AFTER the TGV est than before. I just happen not to start from Paris.My bad.
I am against the privatization of the railways, because of the insanity of competition for a natural monopoly which asset were already financed by the taxpayer, but for inserting some managers with a bare minimum of experience with foreign forms of life, be it customers or other companies. Not only Enarques who only leave Paris for... what for, by the way?

Otherwise, be assured that you are not the only one struggling with the 4 letters code on the Parisian banlieues-trains. It is a secret code and you cannot be considered a "banlieusard" before knowing it by heart.  I suspect  it is like a mother tongue, you can only     imbibe it from one's infancy. It was too late for me when I came to Paris.

La répartie est dans l'escalier. Elle revient de suite.

by lacordaire on Sat Sep 8th, 2007 at 08:10:12 PM EST
About the TGV Est as it is not improving European connections much, I fully agree. Part of the blame goes to the German Railways (and state), with its lagging or unambitious connection projects, which also mean delays for direct services to Munich (not to mention beyond) and partly Frankfurt. (Wait for more in my last summer holiday diary.)

But there is France's centralism (despite the TGV Interconnexion), and the nasty but frequent policy to eliminate potential rail rivals to new high-speed trains. As a tourist, stopping in Strasbourg wasn't a problem for me, but the planning of my trip was made difficult with almost only TGV connections between Rennes and Le Mans, even considering potential changes (I had to buy a special TGV ticket) and only four non-TGV through connections between Le Mans and Paris. Despite DB's problems and some similar policies (most infamously the discontinuation of the InterRegio brand), I think the German IC (and RE) network alongside the ICEs is much more convenient.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Sep 10th, 2007 at 04:35:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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